Track 11: War Picts

Before I could get a good look at what was going on (or as good a look as I could, given the circumstances,) the Pict guarding me bodyslammed me further into the elevator wall as soon as the gunfire started, controlling me and shielding me from any incoming bullets. The sound of pistol and shotgun fire was almost literally deafening.

The engagement only lasted a few seconds. Then there was a longer period where I just stood there, pressed into the wall by my captor, my ears ringing. Slowly, I could hear screaming. That confirmed that they’d been using their hallucinogenic gas. I’d never been hit with it, but I’d seen its effects. The people I’d seen it used on had, at best been, stricken by paranoid hallucinations for a few hours, and at worst, been stuck like that permanently or committed suicide. It was invisible, odorless, and could fill large areas instantly, but thankfully (probably by design) it was easily defeated.

Before I could be thankful for the gas mask, I was dragged out of the elevator. Apparently, the rest of the Picts had left already, and a few had even salvaged weapons, amounting to an M4 with reflex sights, an MP5/10, and a black shotgun, probably a Remington. I noticed that several of the Pict operators were doubled up, and one was limping slightly. Two were out of sight, but they were probably still up.

The FBI agents hadn’t fared as well. We were in what appeared to be some sort of bullpen, with desks scattered all around a large room. The ones who had intercepted us near the elevator had mostly been shot in the head. Judging by the doubled-over Dragon’s Teeth, they had followed standard law enforcement training and aimed for the Picts’ chests. That had come up against Dragon’s Teeth armor. Meanwhile, the Picts had been aiming for headshots, probably because Sgians were shit at penetrating anything thicker than skin. I’d killed a squad because it had been close-quarters and they had been aiming at my armor’s plate. They had Sgians and an SMG using the same ammo, I had a G3 firing 7.62×51.

Then I heard a large thump, so loud I felt my internals vibrate like it was the Fourth of July. I turned around as best I could. Out of the corner of my eyes, I could see that the two Picts had been standing by a door. That door had now been mashed into what seemed to be a jail cell door. One of the Picts let out a yell of frustration and kicked the wall when he saw the results.

Then there was another thump, this one less loud and less chest-rattling. Before I could even turn to the source, I saw the Pict who had kicked the wall in frustration jerk back and slump against the wall as what sounded like an M4 opened up.

My Pict handler bodyslammed me into the ground, but not before I saw some men in body armor, gas masks and dark green fatigues file into the room, shooting M4s and MP5/10s. Judging by how well they were equipped and the fact that they just happened to be on site, these had to be either FBI SWAT or HRT.

From my position on the ground, I could hear the Picts return fire. The Glocks they had were particularly pathetic. Then there was a huge explosion. Several somethings slammed into the wall behind us. I turned and saw that an FBI SWAT operator had been thrown like a ragdoll into the elevator behind me, his pants looking more like a skirt and one leg severed at the calf. The shooting stopped pretty soon after that.

Even though it seemed safe now, the Pict was still pinning me. As the other Picts began moving around, occasionally executing a SWAT operator who wasn’t dead enough for their liking, I realized that the Pict pinning me was actually extremely light. Now wasn’t the time to resist, but it might come in handy.

When I was dragged to my feet again, the Picts had more firepower. Now, most of the seven had M4s and MP5/10s to supplement their Glocks and Sgians. Even the Pict who I had seen go down had an M4. They had also taken off their dress shirts and suit coats, revealing flexible bullet-proof vests, skinny, muscular arms, and more tattoos. They’d also donned what appeared to be sunglasses at first glance, but on second look seemed to be some kind of imaging device. Normally, I would say it would either be thermal or UV, but with the Dragon’s Teeth I couldn’t be sure.

The interesting thing was that they seemed to be preparing the one who’d been shot for a final stand. He was sitting in the corner on a chair, his vest a mess of fibers. The desk had the shotgun and several pistols, and he gingerly gripped an MP5/10.

Then I noticed that there were a bunch of small spheres taped to the floor near me, connected by wires. I then remembered that the gas bomb that the Picts had thrown had been a small black sphere. “Oh shit,” I said, “are you going to blow through the floor?”

The “blow through the floor” part was cut off by the bombs going off. Dust flew up, covering everything. Then I felt myself being pushed towards the hole. “No no no no no!” I yelled. It became a scream as I was lifted up and tossed in.

I fell, with my ankle going in a weird way due to my angle and the scattered debris. Then my knee hit a large chunk of concrete and my hand hit another chunk. Then I hit my head on a rock. My eyes burning from the dust and my head swimming from the pain and the bump it had recently taken, I tried to gain an idea of what was going on.

Judging by the moans of pain and swearing, there were people there. As the dust cleared, I noticed that buried underneath the debris was a man in a suit and gas mask. Using my good hand, I got to my knees. Farther around the room, outside of what was apparently the kill zone, several FBI agents were drawing their guns. I could barely make them out through the still-floating dust, but one close by saw me instantly.

“Hey!” he yelled, drawing his Glock, his voice muffled by his gas mask, “Put your-”

He was cut off by the Picts above us opening fire. One had targeted him, and the agent fell, dropping his gun. I crawled towards it as fast as I could. Around me, the FBI agents were dropping like flies as they fired blindly into the hole in the ceiling. We must have been in some kind of command post.

Speaking of things dropping, I could hear the Picts joining us. One was even running straight towards me. I sped up, despite the pain that shot through my injured hand and knee every time I moved. Finally, I got to the discarded Glock. I flipped around and aimed to see a Pict almost on top. I fired, the Pict kicked. The Glock went skittering away, and the Pict fell, his crotch landing on my face.

Before I could complain or wonder about the sticky wet stuff on my face, the Pict rolled off me. I looked and saw he was clutching his leg with both hands. As one of his buddies knelt besides him knelt down and fired an MP5/10, the injured Pict drew out his Sgian with a blood-soaked hand, put it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

Several other Picts descended on him. The dead Pict was stripped of his vest, weapons, and ammo. Others forced me to my feet. I screamed as I put weight on my bad leg. One Pict, hatred evident behind his professional tone, said, “You’ll live.” Then, they forced the jacket on me so that it doubled as a straightjacket. To add to that, a Pict hooked the sling of an M4 so that if I wasn’t pointing the way they wanted, I’d get choked. Also, the vertical foregrip was digging into my shoulder like crazy. I was then spun around and force-marched towards the stairwell, along with most of the other Picts.

Every step was painful and slow. I could hear firing both ahead and behind me, and it echoed in the stairwell, causing my ears to ring. When we came to the bottom floor, I saw that one of the Picts was firing through the door between the bars that had just gone up, return fire bouncing off the heavy door he was using as a shield. Two with MP5/10s were setting bombs on the wall.

They did not wait for any more to join them before blowing the wall. As the three other Picts filed through and the gunfire became more intense for a brief moment, I wondered if the other two had died.

Then we were through the wall, moving as fast as we could through the hallways. My Pict handler was going so far as to lift me up with his other hand. Occasionally, we would come up against FBI agents. A few times, the gun that would cut them down would be the one right next to my ear. Eventually we turned a corner. There was the lobby. Outside were dozens of cop cars and police officers. It seemed like almost every single one of them had some sort of long gun like a shotgun, rifle or SMG. And they were all trained on us.

“THIS IS THE HONOLULU PD!” a voice over a megaphone said. “DROP YOUR WEAPONS AND RELEASE THE HOSTAGE OR WE WILL OPEN FIRE.”

The Picts did not drop their weapons. But they didn’t fire either. Then one moved his hand towards a pocket.

Instantly, what felt like every cop in the entire state of Hawaii opened on us. I saw at least one Pict go down instantly before my handler dragged me away, the intensity of fire so great that not even his body armor could keep up. A few bullets even hit my chest. It felt like I had been hit by multiple trucks.

I was frog-marched down the hallway. I was forced into the cleanest public bathroom I had ever seen, the Pict using me as a battering ram to open the push-open door. The rifle’s sling was unhooked from my neck, and I fell, landing on my bad knee and injured hand. If I hadn’t been somewhat asphyxiated, I would have screamed. Instead, I gasped for breath. I then looked up to see that the Pict shoving the M4 through the handle of the door.

He looked at me. It was the same one who’d shoved me into the elevator wall, and he wasn’t happy with me at all. I was suddenly very conscious of how much trouble I was in. Then my phone rang.

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Track 10: In the Den

I had gotten my hands in front of me when I suddenly realized Mayu wasn’t taking the opportunity to kill me. Instead, she seemed to be sobbing. I paused, unsure what to do. The table seriously blocked my view. I couldn’t tell if Hicks was fine or if he was dead. I also couldn’t tell if Mayu really was this unstable or if she was trying to lure me out from behind the table.

By the time I had realized that it was probably that Mayu might actually be too emotionally incapacitated to kill me, she had staggered zombie-like into my field of view, the Glock hanging loosely at her side. She raised it to her head and I could see that the grip was slick with blood. My breath caught in my throat. Before I could figure out how I felt about that, she adjusted the gun to aim directly at my heart. Then she shifted back to her head.

This process repeated several times, ending with the gun pointed at my chest. “Well,” she said, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out. I thought you wanted this. I thought you wanted to help people.”

“Mayu,” I said, “I do. But there’s something wrong with you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she said.

“Really?” I asked. “Then why aren’t I dead?”

At this, Mayu’s eyes widened and her hands began to shake. I had her. If I could just find the right words, maybe nobody would have to die today.

Then the door burst open. I turned just in time to see two men in suits open fire. One fell, a bullet in his head. The other advanced into the room. “Target has left the area,” he said. I noticed that he had a Visitor tag and a US Marshal’s badge on a chain around his neck. Also of note was that he wore cowboy boots that probably added a few inches to his height. “We have survivors.”

“Shit!” a man said, running into the room, this one without a badge. “What the hell happened?”

“Someone tried to kill the person we’re trying to take into custody,” the marshal said as he grabbed me by the arm, lifting me up. “You do have a mole, and we need to get our suspect out of here.”

As he lifted me, Hicks suddenly said, “Hey.” I turned to look at him. His face was extremely bloody and his eyes were slightly unfocused. As the most recent arrival tried to bandage him, Hicks stared at the US Marshall for a moment, taking him in from head to toe. Then he looked at the dead Marshal. He then turned to me and said, “Be careful, kid.”

I nodded, a little confused. Why was Hicks wishing me luck? I’d severely screwed him over, and here were a bunch of US Marshals coming in to whisk me away to a place where he probably couldn’t arrest me. Maybe the concussion was talking.

“Please accompany me,” the marshal said, still grabbing arm. He didn’t have to pull very hard. I was actually very curious as to what was going on.

Out in the hallway, I immediately noticed six men. When I turned around, there was a seventh. Of them, only one wasn’t wearing a visitor tag and a US Marshal badge. Except for the person I assumed to be the FBI escort, there seemed to be something similar about them. Not their height, they were all the same size. Their faces and hair colors were all different as well.

“We need to get him out of here,” a Marshal said. “This building is not secure.”

“We’ve got time,” the FBI agent said. “Nakashima’s a lone wolf. We should go to the security station on this level and-”

“We need to leave,” the Marshal said. “If her information is open-source, we might have more incoming.”

“Like what?” the FBI agent asked.

“We have reason to believe that the Dragon’s Teeth wants to apprehend him.” Once I heard this, it made sense. After all, they had made a serious attempt to take me alive at the NIU airfield. Then, I instantly began to wonder why they wanted me and how the US Marshals knew that and the FBI didn’t.

“Well,” the agent said, “can we compromise and stop off at the people in the National Security Branch? Maybe tell them how you know?”

“Affirmative,” a Marshal said. “But all we can really do is put them in contact with those who do.”

“Ok,” the FBI agent said. “I’ll lead the way.” He began to walk off. When we finally got to an elevator and all crowded into it,  the FBI agent commented, “Never worked with marshals before. You guys are really formal.”

The one who had been leading me by the arm suddenly clenched it. “We are just-” four started at once. Then they cast a few looks around and one said, “We’re just a little new with working with our counterparts as well. We are being a little extra professional to make a good impression.”

“Ok,” the FBI agent said. Then his phone beeped, indicating a text message. “Wait, I gotta take…”

The FBI agent was by the door controls and I was in the corner at the opposite end. He was mostly blocked by the six Marshals so I couldn’t see what the text said. I could, however, see that everyone had adopted “oh shit” expressions. The FBI agent even managed to say it partly before one of the Marshals pulled out a strange pistol and executed him with a shot to the back of the head. There was no exit wound, and I couldn’t see the entry wound. I could, however, smell something sweet and spicy, as well as burning hair and flesh.

I recognized the pistol instantly. The immediate giveaway was the lack of noise. The thing that movies don’t really tell you about guns is how loud they are, even with silencers. Even a nine millimeter pistol with a good silencer would probably alert everyone within fifty meters that a gun had been fired. A rifle like an AK or an AR might have deafened everyone in such cramped conditions, even with a silencer. They just might think it had been from a lot further away.

This pistol, known as a Sgian, was so quiet I could barely hear it, even in these cramped spaces. It was very rare. So rare that there was only one group that I or anyone else to my knowledge had seen use it. They were called the Picts, and they were an elite group of Dragon’s Teeth soldiers. That, combined with the dead FBI agent, meant that these weren’t US Marshals.

This was confirmed a few seconds later when they began pulling off their faces and hands. Underneath were the same neutral faces, red hair and green eyes… but wildly different tattoos.

I had never personally seen under a Dragon’s Teeth helmet, but I had managed to get some documents that, among other things, analyzed the tattoos the Deets decorated themselves with. I was still surprised. Several had Mexican Day of the Dead-style skulls tattooed over their faces. Some had Celtic trees of life on their cheeks or back of their neck with the lines made out of a mix of Japanese and Chinese characters, Gaelic writing, and Latin. Those words appeared other places as well, often seeming like a translation. All the work was done in either white or black ink, with the white ink reserved for the skulls.

There were exceptions to how the body art was only in white and black ink. I noticed that some had raised scars that seemed to be names or numbers. There was also a color portrait of a naked skeletal woman with dark hair on the back of one of their necks. Unlike many pictures of naked women, these seemed to have more in common with pictures of Jesus. It was very Day of the Dead, but there were also some elements of old Japanese paintings before they had started using perspective.

I was suddenly slammed against the wall, a pocket gas mask of some sort forced over my face. A Pict suddenly loomed into my face, his face tattooed with a skull mask. On the center of his forehead, in the center of a yellow circle, was another Japanese/Day of the Dead-style image of the woman, except this time she was clothed in a dark robe, had six arms, and was comforting a severely injured Pict. Once he had made sure my mask was on, he moved back.

From my position, I couldn’t really see the person pinning me, but I could kind of see the elevator door and a few other Picts if I strained. They had all gotten their gas masks on. That could only mean they were planning on using a chemical weapon, and I had a pretty good idea on what that was. They also had drawn what either were captured Glocks or Dragon’s Teeth weapons designed to look like Glocks. One Pict, shielded from view from those outside the elevator, even had a small black spherical object.

Suddenly, the elevator doors opened with a ding. Outside, I could see at least two FBI agents crouching behind desks, Glocks aimed at us. They weren’t wearing gas masks. The Pict operator body slammed me further into the elevator wall, both controlling my movements and shielding me from any incoming fire.

At the same time, I heard agents call out things like “Drop your guns!” “Hands on your heads” or “Release the hostage or we will open fire!”

“Shoot them!” I yelled. “Shoot them now!”

Then somebody, I’m not sure who, complied with my request and everything went to hell.

 

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Track 9: Losing Her Conviction

“There’s supposed to be an anti-jumpfield here,” Hicks said.

He was very calm, considering that Mayu Nakashima had stolen his service weapon and jamming it into his neck. They actually made an interesting contrast, with Hicks’ greying hair and age-weathered face compared to Mayu’s unnaturally pale skin and pure white hair. Mayu’s mask-like smile was plastered on her face, and Hicks’ face was sour and unreadable as always. I noticed that both Hicks’ gray eyes and Mayu’s near white ones were both bloodshot, like they hadn’t been sleeping well.

“They don’t work on her,” I said.

“Really?” Hicks said.

“SHUT UP!” Mayu screamed, her face contorting into a mask of rage. Hicks made a choking sound as the muzzle of his Glock was drove further into his neck. A few drops of Mayu’s spittle hit me in the face. She saw the wetness on my extremely terrified face, then a look of confusion passed over hers. She blinked, then just as quickly relaxed. “I am sorry,” she said, bowing her head slightly. “That was uncalled for.”

“I apologize, too,” I said mimicking her head bob, “We shouldn’t have ignored you. Right, Agent?”

“Yeah,” Hicks said. He was terrified and out of breath, but he seemed to have a plan. I wondered if he realized I was trying to talk her down. “Any reason you’re visiting us?”

“Why,” Mayu said, “I said it already. I am here to lead you to the Messiah!”

“I was hoping,” Hicks said, giving me a meaningful look, “that someone could elaborate.”

“Mayu’s been a bit unwell,” I said. “She’s been in isolation for over a while and has some…”

“LIAR!” Mayu screamed, her face contorting with rage. Shit. What the hell had I been thinking? Hicks could tell she was crazy, she’d killed fourty-four people on his watch, five having been tortured to death. “I’M NOT CRAZY! I’M NOT CRAZY, YOU’RE LYING! YOU’VE SEEN HIM WITH YOUR OWN EYES! YOU KNOW HIS-” She halted mid-paranoid rant, her face lighting up with realization. Then she began to laugh hysterically. When she was done, she asked, “You haven’t told him, have you? You haven’t told Agent Hicks about Mubarak-kami, have you?”

“No, he hasn’t,” Hicks said, shooting me a rightfully annoyed glare. “Mind filling in?”

“Did he tell you about Mubarak-kami?” Mayu asked. “I bet he told you he was just a turncoat and a spy, nothing really special. Just some lowly, dishonorable coward.”

“He didn’t say anything like that,” Hicks said. “He only told me his name, that he was under the protection of the CIA and you were after him.”

“Look,” I said, “I’m not trying to throw Mubashir-”

“Show some respect,” Mayu snarled. I suddenly realized that the honorific that Mayu was using on Moob’s name was extremely strange. I had heard kami, the Japanese word for spirit or god before, but had never heard it used in that way. I wondered if it a sign that Mayu’s mind was fraying even more.

“Mubarak… kami?” I said making sure I had gotten it right. “Listen, the guy’s my friend and I’m just trying to protect him. If I tell Hicks he’s with the CIA, he doesn’t ask questions, and neither does the CIA.”

“So,” Mayu said, her face in its normal smile, “for you, protecting him means lying?” I hesitated, my mouth opened. She obviously was with it enough to trap me. “Well,” she said, her smile becoming so wide for a moment her eyes temporarily closed, “I think that says how much we can trust Jacobs-san, doesn’t it, Hicks-san?”

“Yeah,” Hicks said noncommittally.

“What you need to know about Mubarak-kami,” Mayu said, “is that he is God. He’ll fix everything.” That last word was said with such an intensity that Hicks and I flinched, even though it wasn’t angry. Then, she added so quietly I could barely hear it, “He’ll fix me.” She then reverted back to her normal smiling self. “That’s why I need you two. Jacobs-san, you know him. You can help convince him to use his power. Hicks-san, you helped the CIA with its informant extraction and relocation program.” At this, Hicks suddenly looked like the floor had fallen out from under him. “If you help, if you join me, we won’t have to kill anyone else.”

“Mayu,” I said, “There are a few reasons I’ve been uncooperative with you and Hicks.”

“Like he’s not really God?” Hicks said. “I figured that one out.”

There was a long silence. Finally I said, “The evidence,” I said, “actually indicates him being a God being a possibility.”

“What do you mean?” Hicks asked.

“You’ve seen it, haven’t you?” Mayu asked excitedly. “You’ve seen his power?” Suddenly, she got suspicious. “Why aren’t you worshipping him right now?”

“Can we talk about the things we’ll all agree on first?” I asked. Mayu nodded.

“Yeah,” Hicks said, glancing at where Mayu was pressing a gun into his neck. “That’d probably be safer.”

“This is a person,” I said, “who, in what appears to be a limited range,” or what I genuinely spent some nights praying was a limited range, “can make the laws of nature his bitch. If he… wants to, he can choose not to die if you put a three-round burst in his skull. If he wants to, he can turn someone into a fountain. If he wants to turn the immediate area into a cross between an Escher painting and one of those Scooby-Doo chase scenes where the doors lead into the hallway, he can. I mean, wants to is a strong word, but-”

“He can turn people into a fountain.” Hicks’ tone of flat disbelief was frankly expected.

“He can,” I said. “And I really don’t want the CIA doing their MK ULTRA crap on him. And don’t tell me that it’s stopped, or it doesn’t exist, or that they won’t try to do it to him. This is way too much of an opportunity for some of the people there not to take.”

“So,” Mayu said, “why aren’t you helping me?”

This was going to get me shot. I knew that as soon as I realized I had to say it. “Mayu,” I said, “Mu-Mubarak-kami isn’t who you think he is.”

“Yes he is,” Mayu said. “He’s the Architect, isn’t he?”

“Mayu,” I said, “the Architect isn’t some all-loving person. The Architect is a scared, traumatized kid with a split personality that controls his power.”

“What… what do you mean?” Mayu asked.

“Mayu,” I said, trying desperately to connect with her on some level, “ever since he was taken by Al-Qaeda, Mubarak-kami has been trying to kill himself. He told me this after saving my life for the third time, when I realized he’s the Architect. He’s not Mubarak-kami, here to usher in some golden age. He’s Moob, a kid from some Middle Eastern village trying to leave the past behind him. He’s Moob, a guy who has this power he literally believes is a curse from his God for thinking he could do a better job.” I took a deep breath and said, “Mayu, Mubashir’s not the person you want him to be.”

Mayu had been becoming more and more panicked as I spoke. Finally, she whispered, “Liar.”

“Mayu,” I said, “why would I lie to you?”

“LIAR!” Mayu screamed. She then aimed her gun at me again. This time Hicks grabbed the gun. I didn’t see because I had launched myself sideways. The gun went off, but thanks to my dodge and Hicks’ grab, the shot went wild and hit the mirror.

I heard something smash into the table. Hicks grunted in pain. Meanwhile, I tried to step through the handcuffs. As I tried, I heard what sounded like Mayu pistol-whipping Hicks and yelling. “You moron! I was trying to do this right! I was trying to save you! I was trying to save the world! Why do hate me? WHY DO YOU HATE ME? WHY DO YOU HATE MEEEEE?!”

This, I thought to myself, actually might be going better than I expected.

 

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Track 7: They Have Marched 1,000 Miles

The plane was much like a previous version of the Blackmoor-Ward plane that I had been in. The interior furniture was mostly made out of a light yellow-brown wood veneer and warmly lit. The difference was all the SAS in desert camo filing in. I couldn’t hear a Goddamn thing, but could guess that there was a lot of shooting and yelling.

I got off of Eliza’s back and helped her up. She smiled tiredly and said something, and I responded by saying “Sorry, I’m deaf at the moment.” She laughed and said something else that I couldn’t make out. “If you want me to let you go,” I said, dragging her over to a couch, “just elbow me in the stomach or something.”

I could feel Eliza shake with what I’m pretty sure was laughter as I moved her to a couch. Sitting there, looking somewhat embarrassed, was the blond, aristocratic Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward. She said something as I set Eliza down, and I said, “Hey, I’m deaf, remember.”

I sat down heavily and began buckling myself in. I was pretty sure I’d need it soon. As I did so, I saw a man with short black hair and a fancy trench coat by the door helping SAS operators close hatch. He then sat down in a nearby seat. After the SAS operators got back into their seats, he said something into his headset. Then the plane rocketed straight off the ground so fast I felt my spine compress. It was extremely weird having it be in complete silence, except for the ringing in my ears.

I then fell asleep. I mean, it was probably around two in the morning and I’d been drugged by someone. You’d go to sleep as soon as you found a relatively safe place as well.

During the time I was sleeping, my hearing came back. Not fully, but enough for me to hear things as if I was underwater. It came back slowly, so I didn’t wake up. That was good, I really enjoyed that.

What finally woke me up was a rather high-class British voice saying “Good God, is he dead?”

It sounded like it was coming from far away, so I assumed he was talking about someone else. “Wha…?” I said, coming to my senses. “Who’s dead? Is everyone ok?”

When I opened my eyes, I saw that the man in the trench coat was staring at me, and some SAS operators moving about were giving me nervous looks as well. When I started talking, he seemed relieved. “Oh lovely,” he said, “I was quite worried there for a few minutes.” He then moved over to the opposite couch and sat down heavily.

“Sorry,” I said. “Just trying to-” I noticed he was flinching whenever I talked so I lowered my voice to the point where I was having trouble hearing myself. “Just trying to get some shut-eye. Big thanks to your daughter for getting me out. You are Lord Blackmoor-Ward, right?”

“Yes,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said, “I am.” I noticed he had smiled approvingly when I had called Eliza his daughter. “And I understand you are one of the poorly used mercenaries my daughter hired on her most recent adventure?”

“I wouldn’t say hired,” I said carefully, “and I do like the humanitarian spirit behind what she was trying to do.”

“Oh come off it,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said angrily. “We both know that even if Miss Nakashima was the sweetest girl in the world, Charlotte did not have enough intelligence to be sending you on that mission. She had no idea the size of the enemy force, or their equipment, or how far they’d go to kill Miss Nakashima.”

“I take it,” I said, remembering the SAS operator who’d dived for my stretcher as I’d been driven off by the Defenders of Fuji and been shot in the head for his troubles, “I take it there were heavy casualties getting me back.”

“Yes,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said. “You may have seen a few when they initially tried to pick you up and a few more at your successful rescue. You did not,” here his voice got dangerously low, “get to see what the Defenders did to her close-protection unit. Four dead, all because she couldn’t cover up her rescuing that girl.” There was a pause. “At least you’ve been very accommodating about the whole thing.”

“About that…” I said. “I may have told-”

“Agent Hicks,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said. “I know. Eliza told me all about him. Honestly, I’m lucky you haven’t done worse. With all that’s going on, your friend needs someone between him and Miss Nakashima but…”

A haunted expression crossed over his eyes. “Did things get worse?” I asked, knowing full well the answer would be yes.

“Yes,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said. “Dragon’s Teeth don’t have a navy, so they’re stealing the ships of others. In fact, the ship we refueled on is probably overrun by now. And to top it off, we’re getting reports of those bloody clones mucking about near our missile silos in Scotland. Do you mind terribly if we drop you off in Hawaii before heading to Austrailia?”

“Honestly not a problem,” I said. “But I do have some questions about NIU. Or Krieger did, and I’m honestly a little worried. Like, a guy who’s been there since the nineties according to some people still has questions? And he thinks a complete outsider has the answers?”

“Well,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said. “Some of that has to do with my reputation. You know about my primary duties serving the Queen and monitoring the Final Prophecy, but I also have a…”

“Cover story?” I suggested.

“Somewhat,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said, “but a cover story implies what everyone thinks I do is false. Those who know of me, but not of the prophecy, believe I am an expert in the occult.” He paused. “Which I am. I can’t really tell you much more, as you don’t need to know, and Charlotte would be very cross if I let you into this world before I let her in. What I can tell you is that Nowhere Island has some rather interesting magical properties, some of which make it rather difficult for outsiders to discover. Others are rather more… shall we say, robust. It is quite the relief to all in my community that the former President has been ousted before he could master even its most benign abilities.”

“So,” I said, “not only did Howell get in on infiltrating UNIX when it was brand new, not only did he create the Dragon’s Teeth, but he’s also fucking around with literal magic?”

“He what?” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said. Then added, “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. The amount of talent he has there is incredible, but I can scarcely believe he was able to put something like that together.”

“He’s been actively suppressing technologic advances,” I said. “He’s basically keeping everything for himself. Crushing progress, hopes, dreams… he says it’s just to stop aliens, but I’m pretty sure any alien invasion is going to end up with him in charge.”

Lord Blackmoor-Ward leaned back on the couch, considering my words. “He had better remain deposed,” he said after absorbing what I’d said. “The more I learn this man, the more I believe we were lucky to bring him to heel this time. It’s quite doubtful we’ll be able to do it again.”

“Completely agree,” I said. As I thought about this, I suddenly became very concerned by the fact that the President was still alive.

 

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Track 6: In the Middle of the Night

“I swear,” Eliza said for the seventh time as we trundled along in a Bearcat to the airfield, the sound of helicopters overhead, “I meant to tell you but I was freaked out that they were listening in! I mean, when Krieger butted in on my conversation with Father…”

I listened politely. Again. So did Krieger and the CampSec officers. “Eliza,” I said for the seventh time, “it’s ok.”

“I should have told you,” Eliza said, “but…”

“You told me eventually,” I said. Then I remembered something. “Actually, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“What?” Eliza asked.

“Um, you know that person you had me protect?” I asked.

“Oh good God, the little psycho didn’t contact you, did she?”

“No,” I said, “I just gave a friend a heads-up that she’s coming to see someone.”

Eliza sighed. “Please tell me that…”

“I didn’t tell him about why,” I said. “But he can pass it on to the people who…”

“Oh fuckin’ Christ, Nate,” she said. “D’you really think that… that…” she sputtered, shifting from glaring angrily at me to looking at Krieger suspiciously.

“It’s a lot better than them not realizing she’s coming,” I said. “I mean, can you imagine what happens if she gets…”

“Am I right in thinking that you are talking about Mubashir, Agent Hicks and this mysterious woman from Japan?” Krieger asked.

“You’d be right in thinkin’ we aren’t talking to you,” Eliza said. She then sighed and muttered, “Suppose they’d find out ‘bout Moob sooner or later. Anyway, ‘ow’s this handoff gonna go?”

“Very simple,” Krieger said. “We drive you two to the airfield, your dad picks you lot up, and maybe I have a little chat with him.”

“About what?” I asked.

“Well,” Krieger said, “I’d like to be left alone, obviously. I’d prefer not to have a lot a bunch of gobshites deciding to kill my students. If he can help with that, I’d be very happy. Also, there’s some things I want to ask him about this island. Things that the Blackmoor-Wards specialize in.”

“What do you think the Blackmoor-Wards specialize in?” I asked. “Because you’ve got a pretty good knowledge of spy stuff.”

“There’s stuff on this island,” Krieger said, “that just isn’t right. Not natural, I mean, and from what I can tell, it was a little weird here before Howell ever stepped foot on this island.”

I was about to say how I thought that was stupid. Then I realized that this was an island that, despite appearing insignificant geographically, strategically, and politically, had been somehow important enough for the Japanese to occupy during WWII and the US to expend enough shells and bombs to crater the landscape. During Hell Semester, I had made use of these craters frequently, as well as been bedeviled by them. To top it off, I had even heard stories of people accidentally setting off unexploded ordnance. That battle had occurred in the early forties, and NIU had been founded in the eighties. I closed my mouth.

“If there is something ‘ere,” Eliza said, “Father won’t tell you.”

“Well, I’m sure your dad has his-“ Krieger began.

“Father,” Eliza corrected. Her eyes misted up a bit. “Me dad died a while ago.” She then continued on, more annoyed. “Also, apparently, ‘e won’t tell me or Char what’s up with this bloody island either.” That was disturbing. He had told Eliza and Charlotte some highly sensitive information in the past. Like that they’d broken UNIX codes and I was working for them.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Krieger said.

Suddenly, a voice crackled over the radio on Krieger’s shoulder. “‘Allo, boss,” a staticky voice with a French accent said, “are you there, over?”

“Yeah,” Krieger said. “I copy. What is it, Hollande?”

“Kowaleski and Obiozor are reporting some strange heat signatures around the airfield and Kassem is reporting something triggering the pressure sensors. Should we abort?”

“No!” Krieger almost shouted. Then he calmed down. “I mean, we’ve got a buncha bloody Brits thinking of wiping us off the face of the Earth over these two. Tell them we’ve got some guests and we need to do the swap a lot faster than we were planning. Maybe send a couple Bearcats to investigate. Krieger out.”

“Got it, boss.” As the French CampSec officer signed off, I could hear the whine of jet engines. The Bearcat stopped for a moment, I heard the sound of a metal grate open, we drove forwards a short ways, then we stopped again.

“Right,” Krieger said, getting up. “Here’s our stop. Oh, before I forget.” He reached under his seat and pulled out a bag. “Your weapons.”

As Krieger and the CampSec guards left the Bearcat, Eliza and I opened the bag. Inside was a Berretta 92 Inox, a two-tone SIG-Sauer P229, a chrome CZ-75, holsters for all the pistols, a G3KA4 modified with rails, vertical foregrip, EOTech hybrid sight, and several magazines for each weapon.  “Holy shit,” I said, quickly moving to get my holsters on my belt and my pistols in my holsters, “I forgot I kept my G3 here.”

“You’ll notice,” Eliza said, smacking a magazine into her pistol and chambering a round, “that you have three different guns, one of ‘em bloody ‘uge, and I’ve only got one pistol.”

“You realize,” I said, “that you’re the one who always carries around a FAL, right?” I grabbed a G3 mag, realized I couldn’t put it in my pants pocket, so I shoved it in my sweater. I was only able to fit three in each, plus one in the gun. That was three G3 mags I couldn’t carry with me. I sighed, and slung it over my shoulder by its broken strap. Then I headed outside to wait with Eliza.

When I got out, I saw we were at the airfield. Lights were illuminating the approach as well as the landing strip and hangars. Parked outside the gate to the airstrip were two Bearcats disgorging heavily armed CampSec troops. A third Bearcat was slowly driving off across the moonscape of overgrown craters, a floodlight on its turret dissolving the night like acid. Beyond that moonscape was the forest. Not even the floodlights made a dent in it

Surrounding the airfield was a tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire and reinforced with sandbags and Jersey barriers. Groups of four patrolled, the interior and there were a series of towers with either floodlights, heavy machineguns, or snipers. I noticed that the ones with floodlights weren’t manned.

“OI, NATE!” I turned around. Despite Eliza yelling, she was being drowned out. The sound of the jet engine was much closer. She was standing near Krieger and surrounded by the CampSec that had been on the Bearcat. “DID YOU LOAD YOUR…”

The jet noises were getting so loud my ear drums felt like they could implode any second. I looked up. Hovering above us and slowly descending was what looked like a private jet modified with VTOL capability. Assuming Eliza wanted me to load my pistols, I did so.

When I looked up again, the VTOL had descended dramatically. The distinctive angel wing pattern of flares lit up the night and the smoke trail of a rocket had whisked past the plane, barely missing it. Meanwhile, many were flinging themselves to the floor and shouting for others to do the same.

Of course, I didn’t realize any of that at the time. I just stared at the plane gormlessly. It wasn’t until a familiar bluish-white light flashed behind me with the accompanying heat surge that I realized what was going on. We were under attack, most likely by the Dragon’s Teeth, and they’d brought one of their bouncy balls of plasma death.

Before I could get down, something grabbed me and forced some sort of cloth to my face. I instinctively held my breath, but still got a whiff of whatever it was coated with and began to feel woozy. As I struggled, I saw a CampSec officer who had been lying near me get up and open fire. I noticed that she was using her scope (which appeared to be a thermal one) and yelling something into her throat mic. Her fire was also very calm. Two shots to my right, then she shifted her aim and fired one to my left. Each set caused a man in futuristic armor to fizzle into existence and fall down, bleeding. I recognized the uniforms. They were Ninja, Dragon’s Teeth units that could literally go invisible. They have shimmery outlines if you shine a light on them and are paying attention, but the best way to spot them is to use thermal imaging. That must have been what the bulky scope on the CampSec guard’s SCAR-H was.

She was aiming for the one holding me when suddenly her head was sliced off mid-neck. Steam smoked off.

Meanwhile, I had drew my P229 from the holster on my left hip, pushed it against where I thought the head of the Ninja was, and pulled the trigger. The Ninja shuddered, tightening his grip temporarily, then collapsed. I followed a second later as leads shot out from an invisible point and hit me in the chest. There was a crackling noise and I blacked out.

I came to, I’m not sure how long, Eliza throwing me over her shoulders like a sack of potatoes and fucking booking it to the now-landed VTOL, Krieger yelling encouragement. Or at least running as fast as she could with a hundred and eighty pounds of dead weight on her back.

I took the opportunity to look around and saw that things were kind of fucked. Several of the watch towers were burning and sagging from the intense head of the Dragon’s Teeth plasma weaponry. Streams of tracer fire raked the cratered area of the field around the airstrip and the forest. Then a rocket arced up from the ground back towards the place in the sky the deluge of gunfire was coming from.

I then had the frustrating experience of being able to feel Eliza talk, but not be able to make out the words. I then suddenly realized I couldn’t hear anything. I could feel Eliza speak, I could feel the backwash of the choppers, but I literally couldn’t hear anything except an annoying ringing in my ears. I guess shooting off one of my pistols had finally deafened me.

Then there was a resounding thump-thump-thump as rockets streamed from the sky onto the ground below. A Hind and a Blackhawk helicopter sporting glow-in-the-dark NIU logos flew directly over our heads, both strafing the ground.

Soon we reached the VTOL. A group of people dressed in fatigues and carrying M4 clones ushered Eliza up the ramp. Once inside, she collapsed.

I rolled off her. “Eliza,” I said, somewhat loudly in case she was deafened, “What you did was amazing. Thank you.” Then I lapsed into unconsciousness.

 

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Track 5: Kidney Stones and Confessions

It was a testament to the deposed Anthony Carter Newton-Howell that he could still sound casual after having been strapped naked to a table for several days. I’m not going to lie, it was also intimidating as hell.

“You’re really not in a position to be making threats,” Krieger said coldly. Behind me, I could hear the rustling of paper.

“Did that sound like a threat?” the President asked innocently. “Nathan, if I’m threatening you I apologize.” Something about the tone of his voice made it clear that it was an insult, but a reasonable person would have some doubts.

We were then interrupted by Zemylachka loudly eating a breakfast sandwich. She had to be deliberately eating the thing as loudly as possible. I recognized the paper bag. It was from Galahad’s Café. They made good food, but even so, the happy noises Zemylachka was making was probably faked.

“Can you stop that?” the President asked.

“Shtop what?” Zemylachka asked, her mouth full of breakfast sandwich.

“Really?” the President asked. “I thought you were more sophisticated than this. You’re just being kind of a dick now.”

“Insults?” Zemylachka asked, after swallowing loudly. “And I was going to give you something to eat if you cooperated.”

“Really?” the President asked suspiciously. “I mean, the goal is to kill me, right? Oh, by the way, assuming you get creative, this’ll probably work in three to six months.”

“But we have so much to learn!” Zemylachka said. I shivered at how she said that. “You could help us a bit.”

“So that’s why this is taking so long,” the President said as Zemylachka moved to kneel beside him. “You know, a lot can change in six months. For instance, I could be a free man having lunch at five-star restaurants in Zurich.”

“Or,” Zemylachka said after loudly swallowing some of her breakfast sandwich, “you could seriously reevaluate your endurance. For instance, how often do you test your ability to go without food?”

“I’m a scientist,” the President said. Krieger and Zemylachka looked at each other and laughed out loud at this. “Ok, I know about science. I think I’m good. I’m not going to break easily.”

“You won’t last a day, you love luxury too much,” Zemylachka said. “Look at your house.”

“Which bloody one?” Krieger asked. “I’ve seen the one on the Volga, the apartment in London, the one in Shanghai…”

“How…?” the President asked. “You shouldn’t know about those.”

“You might want to talk,” Zemylachka said. “Life will get much more comfortable if you cooperate.”

“For instance,” I said, “did you create the Dragon’s Teeth?”

The President stared at me for a second in disbelief. “Are… are you sure you don’t know the answer? You know about the Interdimensional Research Facility, you’d have to be dumber than even I think you are to not know about my hoarding of technology, you just heard those two idiots talk about how rich I am, and you know how much talent I can access here. What do you think?”

I suddenly remembered Kyle Rockford. He was a transgendered man who had gone to NIU with me. His grandfather had taught at NIU and gotten some advanced gene therapy to help him transition. Then the person who had invented the treatment had gone missing. I also remembered Mubashir mentioning the reason Al Qaeda had been on-campus was that the President let them train for a reduced price or free in exchange for favors. Other groups had the same deal, and, according to Moob, the favors usually involved delaying scientific progress made by NIU graduates. “Speaking of the tech hoarding,” I said, suddenly angry, “how many could have been saved, how many lives could have been improved, if you hadn’t gone around ruining your graduates so they couldn’t work?”

The President shrugged. “Millions. Billions. Who cares? It’s a rounding error compared to what the Dragon’s Teeth can save.”

“The Dragon’s Teeth,” I said, “are out of control.”

“You sure?” the President asked. “I mean, I may have lost control of the people I delegated them to, but-“

Krieger and I spoke at the same time. “Sounds like you’ve lost control,” he said.

I, meanwhile, said, “They’re plotting an uprising!”

The President turned to me. “What makes you say that?” he asked, mildly interested.

“I’ve heard them in Korea, remember?” I said. “Their Death Goddess.” The President opened his mouth and I said, “Yes, I know you think that the Final Prophecy is bullshit, I don’t blame you.” Zemylachka and Krieger looked confused, so I added, “Basically, a God or Goddess of Death, a reality-warping entity, some supernatural beings ‘from the sky,’ and their minions are going to duke it out according to a prophecy from the 1500’s. And the thing about the Death Goddess…” I took a deep breath. This was going to sound crazy. “I saw her. Or at least how she or it’s connected to the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“How…?” the President asked, looking at me like I was crazy.

“Dead people took me to see…” I struggled, looking for the words, “the psionic representation of their bond, I guess? It was beautiful, but I had no idea what I was looking at.”

“Do… do you want to see someone?” Zemylachka asked. “Someone who specializes in…” From her tone of voice, it sounded like she was looking for

“Mental wellbeing?” Kreiger supplied helpfully. He then turned back to the President. “Anyway, before we get too distracted, what are you saving everyone from? And how are you planning on getting things under control?”

“The immediate threat?” the President asked. “You’ll meet them in about, oh, a few months. Personally, I’d let the Dragon’s Teeth take over, then let them do their job. Unless they’ve gone truly psychotic, they’re going to fight the bigger fish.”

“And then what?” Kreiger asked.

“You know,” the President said, “I think I’ll save some of that for another time.”

“You aren’t exactly in a position-” Krieger began.

“No, no, no,” Zemylachka said. “Is fine, is fine, I think. Interrogation, even torture, is like therapy.” She reached into the bag and brought out a breakfast sandwich and placed in on the President’s chest. She then reached in and brought out an IV bag. “After I ensure more productive sessions, I will feed you your treat.”

As she stuck the bag into him, I asked, “So, what is that?”

“Yeah,” the President said. “I’m a little interested as well.”

“Some calcium, some oxalate, bit of uric acid,” Zemylachka said. “Harmless, really.”

“Oh my God,” I said, suddenly realizing what she was doing. “You… you’re giving him artificial kidney stones.” In case you’ve never had one, if they get big enough, they’re painful. I’d never experienced one, but I had heard a medically-minded friend talk about them once. “You’re a monster.”

Zemylachka rolled her eyes. “Of course I am. Have you not been paying attention?”

 

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Track 4: You Got Me Up in a Cage

The battle to take the campus had, from what I could tell from the various safe areas I had been stored in, been chaotic and brutal. Nobody, especially Campus Security, could tell who was on what side. To top it off, some of the students, staff and faculty appeared to have taken the opportunity to settle old grudges and/or enrich themselves.

Two days later, the campus was secure again. The last burst of gunfire had been very methodical and it was around this time Krieger came to collect me. “‘Allo, Boyke!” he said, popping his head into the room. “Would you like to talk with a deposed despot?”

As he walked into the room, two people filed in. I recognized both of them. One, a blond woman a little older than I was (I think her name was Edda Stauffenberg,) I only knew of because she had been in Hell Semester the year after me. She wore a blouse, grey slacks and a black Kevlar vest loaded with grenades and ammo and carried a G36C. One of the few clues to the fact that she hadn’t started her NIU career in Shadowhaven was that her hair hung loosely down beyond her shoulders.

The other I recognized as Oro Okoro. We had been in Hell Semester together and, while not close, we had both been in a certain short-lived club. She had gotten her dark hair cut short and wore yellow-brown fatigues and a similar vest. She carried a pump action shotgun and had her SMLE slung over her shoulder. I also noticed that all my visitors had a blue ribbon with a red stripe around the center tied across their right arms.

“I’d much prefer it if I could go home,” I said.

“You can go home,” Krieger said, “I just need you to confirm a few things. Then you, your girlfriend, and your pet FBI officer can go home.”

I clammed up. Early on, they had given me my cPhone back. I had called Eliza first, of course. She sounded glad to hear from me, then things had gotten awkward. As soon as she had hung up, I had called Agent Hicks, an FBI agent. I had an urgent need to contact him, and I needed that conversation to be unheard by Krieger. Hoping that they had only gotten the number and conversation length, I opened my mouth, trying to play dumb.

“By the way,” Krieger said, ending that plan before it could even start, “I liked Mubashir. Is there anything I can do to help him from this Nakashima person?” I tried to keep my emotions from showing. Mubashir Mubarak was a former Al-Qaeda terrorist who had been recruited against his will. He had finally escaped when he was revealed to be a) a mole for the CIA and b) a godlike entity. Mayu Nakashima, meanwhile, was an assassin who had been trapped for half a millennium in a hell dimension because several secret societies had prophesized Mubashir being, well, God. Now she was looking for him. “It sounds like a very interesting story,” Krieger said. “Would you care to tell me why a Japanese person is after an Al-Qaeda operative?”

“No,” I said, keeping my response short and truthful. “Anyway, how’s Eliza doing?”

“She doesn’t trust us,” Oro said. “She’s already tried to break out twice.” She was obviously bothered, and who could blame her? Eliza had been closer to her than I was, and possibly anyone else since her parents had been killed.

“Not surprising,” I said. “You are holding us at gunpoint. Plus, Eliza has a few trust issues at the moment.”

“We’ve contacted her father,” Krieger said, “and he’ll pick both of yeh up as soon as you help me with this one little thing.”

“Ok, fine,” I said. “Lead the way.”

Krieger nodded. Edda rapped a pattern on the doorframe with her fist. “Paris!” she called out.

“London!” a voice responded. We then walked out into the hall. There were several more people guarding the hall. I recognized two. Camilla Reyes was another fellow Hell Semester graduate from Mexico and there was a young brown-haired guy with a Ruger Mini who I remembered being in Edda’s year at Hell Semester.

“Right, boys and girls!” Krieger said cheerily. “Let’s go!”

We then began to head out into the island’s sweltering summer heat. Because everyone there was from AMS/Shadowhaven, it was a very good close protection setup. “So,” I said as we got out of the building, “how’s the purge going?”

“Not well,” Krieger said. “We’ve had to kill too many otherwise good people.” He shook his head and sighed. “The thing is, we don’t have the facilities for containing some of the President’s scarier supporters. Nowhere Island’s for keepin’ people out, not keepin’ ‘em in. And if a few of these people get out, too many people would end up dying.” He looked at me. “I did this to stop students from dyin’, boyke. To stop Hell Semester. If I let some psycho or loyalist live and they go around killin’ students, then what the fuck did I do any of it for?”

“Ah,” I said. “I see.” We walked a while longer. I saw a Bearcat (an armored car used by CampSec) that had been disabled. By “disabled,” I meant that it had been hit with some sort of anti-tank weapon that had smashed craters into the troop bay and engine compartment. I could see bloodstains where people would have been sitting through the holes. It had then careened into a building. “Tough fight, huh?” I asked.

Oro nodded. “A few loyalist CampSec officers were put in Bearcats. They did a number on us until we were able to take the anti-tank weapons.”

“How many did you lose?” I asked.

“Too many, man,” Edda’s buddy from Hell Semester said in an earnest Southern accent. “Bastards cut us up pretty bad.” He shuddered. “They were right to, though, after what we did to the HQ.”

“And what did you do to the HQ?” I asked.

“Pumped it up with gas,” another person in the escort group said, “then locked the door.” Judging by how guilty they looked, I assumed it wasn’t something that killed instantly. I wondered how many of the CampSec guards in there were really loyalists and how many were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“President’s mansion,” Krieger said. “We’re keeping him in one of his personal laboratories. Apparently, the bastard was a scientist.”

The mansion, located in the heart of the campus, was one of the few buildings relatively untouched by the fight. Instead, Campus Security officers and AMS/Shadowhaven faculty were busy ripping it to shreds. I mean that literally, through the double doors I could see people with sledgehammers, pneumatic battering rams and chainsaws ripping out the walls. Also, carts with electronics and paper files were being collected in the lobby.

“Ah! Karl!” A large, bald man with a Russian accent came out to greet Krieger. I recognized him. It was Dmitri Popov, the owner of the AMS/Shadowhaven haunt called the Drunken Mercenary. I had tended bar for him. “We are doing quite well as you can see. Bastard’s got all these hidey-holes. What do you want to do with the money and valuables we find?”

“If we want to keep this shit running,” Krieger said, “we’re going to put it all in the treasury somehow. Anything more, ask the board.”

“They’re going to make you President of this fucking place, you know?” Dmitri said.

“They can bloody well try,” Krieger growled. “And I’m not going to do that thing where I turn ‘em down twice before I accept. I want to teach, and if they won’t leave me alone, I’ll quit and go find a Uni where I can without bein’ harassed.” He turned around, remembering our guard was still with us, and said, “You lot, wait outside before you hear any more you ain’t supposed to.”

Popov laughed at the last bit and ushered us further in. “Everyone knows that they’re going to ask you.” Krieger muttered something under his breath. When we were further in, Popov murmured, “And seriously, you are the right person for the job.”

“There’s others,” Krieger said, “and I’ll only take the job if I’ve bleedin’ got to do this again.”

“Fair enough,” Popov said. “But you realize, even if you don’t take the big job, you can’t just be a normal teacher. You brought a coalition together and if it falls apart too soon, before we stabilize it, people could die.”

We walked further into the mansion. Eventually we got to a small sitting room in the basement. Krieger walked to a gap in the wall that revealed an elevator. Hinges and splintered remains suggested that the elevator had once been disguised by a book case. Popov, meanwhile, walked over to a liquor cabinet. “Here,” he said, handing me a glass bottle of a clear liquid. “You’ll be needing this. Rosie’s preparing him.”

“Key word, preparing!” We turned around to see Professor Zemylachka hurrying towards us. “This process, it will take very long to break him. Potentially weeks, months even. Now is not the time.”

“We might not have that time,” Krieger said. “This is supposed to kill him, after all. Added to that, these Dragon’s Teeth blighters might not give us weeks before they come a-knocking.”

“Fine!” Zemylachka said. “We rush it like amateurs.” We all got into the elevator, except Popov. “Dmitri,” Zemylachka said, “are you coming?”

“I saw it once,” he said, “don’t need to see it again.” The door of the elevator closed shut, then Krieger punched in a code and down we went.

After the silent elevator trip, the door opened onto a long hallway. It was brightly lit, painted a dark blue or gray, and had a clean-room feel to it.

“So,” I said, “can I ask how we’re killing the President?”

“Well,” Zemylachka said, “regeneration like that requires large amount of energy, yes?” I nodded. “So, we simply limit access to energy.” With that, she pressed a button. A door opened with the hiss of a rapid change of pressure. Disturbingly, the escaping air blew

Inside was a sort of med lab. Medical equipment and computers were arrayed around the room. In the center was an operating table with a bunch of scanners aimed at it. In the bed, strapped to the bars by his wrists and ankles with handcuffs and several belts securing him, lying naked in his own bodily waste, was the former President.

“You know Nate,” he said conversationally, raising his head, “I’m starting to think you weren’t entirely truthful when we had our little conversation.”

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