Nowhere Island University volume 1: Glad You’re Not Here is available on Amazon. Follow Nathan Jacob’s adventures in the brutal first semester. Available in paperback and on Kindle.
Nowhere Island University volume 1: Glad You’re Not Here is available on Amazon. Follow Nathan Jacob’s adventures in the brutal first semester. Available in paperback and on Kindle.
“Nate,” Eliza said as we walked through the bombed out buildings of Worcester, “You sure this is a good idea?”
Around us, dozens of people walked milled in an open-air market. A few of the reconstituted cops and Dragon’s Teeth soldiers walked around, making sure none of the stalls made out of rubble were being looted.
“You’re only saying that because you’ve only been in there a few days,” I said. “Trust me, voluntary confinement in a big building isn’t much better than involuntary confinement in a small room.”
I scanned a shop. The guy running it was extremely chubby, but that didn’t fool me. One of the few remaining reliable source of food was cake mix. If you ate nothing but birthday cake (minus the icing,) you would probably end up fat. Everyone was suffering from malnutrition, and judging by the man’s straw-like hair and flaking skin, he was no exception.
“I heard about you,” he said.
“Really?” I said. “I’m sorry, but my girlfriend just got out and is making me quit the booze.”
The man looked at me for a while, a cold expression on his face. I noticed he was staring at my hands. That’s how I realized they were shaking. “Not what I meant,” he said. He then looked behind me and nodded.
“Nate…” Eliza said. I turned. A small group of cops and better-fed civilians had surrounded us. It wasn’t surprising that the cops were armed, but underneath the weathered clothes, the civilians had bulges or clothes pulled down in odd ways. Behind them was a van with open doors.
“There’s a five-minute window,” one of the cops said, an elderly black man. “These ladies and gentlemen would like you to meet someone. Without the Dragon’s Teeth knowing.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Get in the van.” One of the people dressed like civilians said this. She was in her fifties and had an anarchist symbol tattooed on her chest right beneath her collar bone.
Eliza gave me a look that just screamed “this is not a good idea and you should feel stupid.” I shrugged.
“Get in the van,” the woman repeated. “They could be back any second.”
I began walking and Eliza grudgingly followed. It was set up for cargo, so there were no seats or windows and the view to the front was blocked off. Four of the civilians followed us in and shut the door. In front, I heard the driver’s door open, then slam shut. A few moments later, the engine started up and the van began moving.
“This is puttin’ me on edge,” Eliza said.
A burly white man who was about my age, maybe a little older, and sporting a buzz cut responded, “My plan was to shove a bag over your head and force you into the van, ma’am.”
I looked him over. “Let me guess: Marines? Law enforcement?” The man looked surprised for a second, then returned to his stony silence. “If it had just been me,” I said, “it would have worked.”
“But if we got caught,” a nerdy-looking black man said, “you would just say we kidnapped you. But now, if we get pulled over, we’ve got a bunch of witnesses saying got in willingly.”
I nodded. It was a fair point, especially how it was implying that I’d have to back them up on whatever story they made up or be in trouble. But I could always say they threatened me. Then it would basically be a game of chicken, seeing if they cared about the people fed by my (theoretical) ability to keep the factory running. It also depended on whether or not they thought they could capture May and Andy wherever they were or train a replacement.
“But you didn’t want us seeing where we’re going,” Eliza said.
No one responded to that, apart from a few looks of “what do you expect?” We drove the rest of the trip in silence. Eventually, we came to a stop and heard a garage door close. The driver got out, waited for a bit, then knocked on the door to the cargo area. One of our hosts opened the door, revealing a parking garage.
“Come with us,” the elderly anarchist said. We walked down a ramp, past several derelict wrecks. I had a hunch we were underground. Finally, sitting on the hood of a very scuffed-up Dodge Charger was the man himself.
“Agent Hicks,” I said. “I had a suspicion we’d meet.”
He smiled cynically. “Nate, you sound like a Godamn cape. I think we both know that you wanted this meeting. If you decided you didn’t want to talk me all you’d have to do is stay in that factory of yours and no one could touch you.”
So he hadn’t heard about Mayu. Eliza looked at me questioningly when he said that. I said, “Well, there are some exceptions.”
“And those exceptions would be very unhappy with you coming to me,” Hicks said. His tone was still conversational, but there was an edge. He was being cautious. He stood up, and walked over to me. Despite the fact that he was shorter than me, it was very intimidating. He then said, all the warmth in his voice gone, “I wonder why you’re doing this.”
“The truth?” I said. I began ticking off the reasons. “There’s boredom. That’s a big one. Almost killed myself because all there is to do in the factory is alcohol. Guilt. I mean, I basically talked people into coming into a death trap? And for what? Look at what’s happening. Plus I was released pretty early and am starving slower than most other people. And I’m still, y’know, under the delusion that you can change all this. Oh, and a bit of wounded American pride as well.”
“So,” the Marine said, “you’re going to do this partly because you’re bored?”
I turned around to face him. “Never been in solitary, have you?”
“How long did they put you in?” Hicks asked.
“A long time,” I said. “If they ever catch you, remember: they lie about how long you’ve been in.”
“So there’s an element of revenge?” Hicks asked.
“Not on my part,” I said. “I mean, I don’t owe them, I don’t like them, but I respect the fact they could have just murdered me.” I sighed. “I just want this to end, you know?” I composed myself. “Anyway, what do you want?”
“I don’t like the Dragon’s Teeth either,” Hicks said, “and I need your help.”
“As long as it doesn’t involve fucking with the food,” I said. Hicks raised his eyebrows. “You didn’t know?” I asked, surprised. “We’re producing medicine and food. If you’ve been eating from Dragon’s Teeth stuff, you may have come across some awful sludge.” I noticed that the people in plainclothes who didn’t look malnourished made some gagging noises in response to that. “You must be choking it down, Hicks. You don’t look like you’ve been eating bread and cake mix like the rest of us.”
“Is that really something you need to know?” Hicks asked. I suddenly realized that knowing that kind of information could get his location uncovered. If he was working for the Teeth and in my position, that would have been the first thing he’d ask. I also decided not to ask about his partner, Agent Barton.
“No,” I said. “Just some pride in my creation, that’s all.” I waited a few minutes. “Anything you want?”
“Information,” Hicks said. “We’re going to push, and I want to know if they’ll push back. Also, do you know where your friend Jennifer Kagemoto is?”
“No,” I said. “We convinced her to run rather than being captured.” Suddenly, a thought struck me. “Oh, and by the way, ask Mai Lau how the Dragon’s Teeth managed to open up a portal in her territory without her noticing.”
“First thing I did,” Hicks said. “She snuck me up into her penthouse to discuss her desire to be a double-agent. She also wants to know where Jen is.”
“If Jen is still around,” I said, “I would be very disappointed if you gave her up.”
“I want the option of having her rally the local criminal population instead of Lau,” Hicks said. “I trust her more.” He stood up. “In the meantime, write down everything you know about the Teeth, even the stuff you think I already know, and give it to… who’s their contact again?”
“He met him already,” the anarchist woman said. “Looked at his stall and everything.”
“Good,” Hicks said. Then he waved us off. “Go on, get outta here. I’ll be in touch.”
“The booze is gone,” Eliza said as we were making the cake mix. “An’ you aren’t getting it back.”
“Ok,” I said.
“You’re taking this very well,” Eliza said suspiciously.
“That’s because now you have to decide an alternative,” I said. Eliza stared at me blankly. “You took away the booze so you have to think of something to do today.”
“Well,” Eliza said, “is the internet still on?”
“In a manner of speaking,” I said. “We have internet but the vast majority of sites are down. That includes all social media, Netflix, and YouTube. Even PirateBay is down, and the sites that are up have no one on them.”
“There’s some Dragon’s Teeth propaganda for about two hours a day. It’s static the rest of the time.”
“What about playing cards or board games?”
“Apparently, most of them got burned for warmth. The books as well.”
“How the fuck were you able to find all this booze, then?” Eliza asked.
“That’s the fun part,” I said. “It’s dangerous, but, judging from my little escapade last night, I think that may have been more of a feature than a bug.”
Eliza shook her head. “Bloody ‘ell, I’m gonna go crazy ‘ere instead of in Isolation.” She stood up. “At the very least, we’re gonna see if somethin’s on the telly. D’you reckon we’ll ‘ave to pay a license fee to the bastards?”
“At this point,” I said, “I think they’re trying to get everyone to watch TV at the set times. Some people seem to be protesting by refusing to watch.”
We stopped talking for a while. Suddenly, I heard something fain from outside the factory. Eliza did too. “Sounds like someone’s talkin’ over a microphone,” she said.
“Makes sense,” I said. “They’re probably trying to get people to watch TV.”
“Well,” Eliza said, “that’s what we’re going to do.”
I walked down to a ruined meeting room that hadn’t been used until the last battle, Eliza following. The door lock had been fused shut by a defender who had gotten a welder or some acid, so we walked through a hole the Teeth had so courteously blown in the wall with shaped charges. The TV had been right next to the hole and apart from a couple stray bullets to the screen, it was pretty much intact. The rest of the room, however, was a complete mess. The conference table and chairs were gone except for some splinters and scraps of fiber I’d missed, and the opposite wall had been turned from a calming blue canvas into Swiss cheese and stained a disturbing brown in places. Luckily, the smell of the massacre that had abated, instead leaving
“Well,” Eliza said, “Under normal circumstances this’d be sarcastic, but you’ve cleaned it up nicely.”
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s been one of the few things I can do here. And there’s a lot of work to do. A lot I can’t because, well, I saw it through the security system and I just keep reliving it.” I stared at the wall. “I have no way of cleaning blood and… other liquids. The Deets took all the cleaning supplies, so there’s a lot of stains. Luckily, the ground in this room was carpet and I could just rip it out.” After that task, I had almost been too mentally and emotionally exhausted to continue. Then, when I had left the blood and piss-soaked carpets and the wood boards that had held them in place just beyond the factory walls, I noticed that they had disappeared. Hoping it was because they had gone to a good cause, I did the same with all the ruined wood and carpet I could find.
We turned on the TV and sat down on the cold concrete. A Legionnaire spoke to us, his helmet off to reveal a rather Mediterranean complexion. “Civilians in the US-NE Precinct, welcome to the daily briefing. We now have the resources for daily broadcasting. Please tune in every day.”
I rolled my eyes. “Like that’ll work.” From what I could tell, for all our talk of being a proud nation, we US citizens hadn’t really taken up arms after being taken over. We’d been completely exhausted by the massive death and destruction. Instead, most had been relatively compliant with a growing amount of civil disobedience.
The announcer continued on. “In other news, multiple refugee convoys are making their way to this Precinct. We would prefer all convoys move East past the Appalachin Mountains. We have also increased automation thirty-three percent. Now all raw materials gathering positions have been automated. All other jobs except in the medical, law enforcement and instructional fields are being reduced to fifteen hours a week.”
“So what’s everyone else going to do?” Eliza asked. “From what it looked like, labor was the only thing most people were doing.”
“More importantly,” the announcer said, “this Precinct will be home to the first UN-Dragon’s Teeth Summit. In several week’s time, there will be an influx of UN humanitarian and security personnel. For those of you who are originally from a foreign country not under our control this will be your opportunity to leave.”
“Bet that got some attention,” I muttered.
“As you may have noted,” the announcer continued, “the docks in Boston have been under guard for several weeks now. This is where the security zone shall be located. Security will be split between Dragon’s Teeth warriors and UN Peacekeepers. Unarmed humanitarians and journalists and armed Peacekeepers will venture out with Dragon’s Teeth guards. They arrive in two weeks.” That was sooner than I expected and not something I’d heard about. News was traveling a lot slower, because I’d heard nothing about Boston docks having higher security. Of course, due to the fighting, the subsequent migrations, the Deet’s insistence no one live to close to the coast, and possible deliberate genocide, Boston had gone from a bustling city to a ghost town.
The announcer continued, “Commander Brosnan of the UN Security Force asks that you not make any contact with the UN unless asked.”
“Wait, Brosnan?” I asked. “One of the two people who sent me to die in NIU so a fucking Klansman could steal tech for them to sit on?”
“If it’s him,” Eliza said, “‘Ere’s ‘oping that Takashi died. Painfully.” Takashi and Craig were the two people who had recruited me to go to NIU for UNIX. One time in my second year at the college, almost two semesters after I was supposed to have died, Takashi had threatened me in front of Eliza and I (much to my regret) had to stop her from disemboweling him in the middle of a fancy restaurant.
As the announcer continued talking about the UN, I said, “Fuck, isn’t… wasn’t? UNIX based in France? Hell, does it still have enough members to exist at this point?”
“They’re fucking rats in UNIX,” Eliza said, “and the higher up they are, the better they are at getting off a sinking ship. I’m surprised Carter-Howell thought he could trust them.”
I thought about President Anthony Newton Carter-Howell of NIU. He seemed to have a problem with people stabbing him in the back. I wondered how much of that was his fault, and if the core founders of UNIX who’d graduated NIU had been as slippery before learning from him. Of course, before I’d been to NIU, I had never even touched a gun or even been in a real fight.
The announcer suddenly got my attention again. “And now for the list of public enemies. These people are dangerous and are clear and present threats to the peace we are working so hard to build.”
He seemed to be listing from least to most threatening. I saw several cops, soldiers, politicians, and activists from before the war. I noticed very few super heroes and villains were mentioned.
“Oh hey,” I said, “they didn’t list Jen. Have you heard anything about her?” Jennifer Kagemoto was a Jumper like Mayu. Before the war, she’d been high up in organized and costumed crime in New York and a fellow NIU student. She then fought with us in the last battle before we convinced her to teleport away.
“No,” Eliza said. “But they’re just about to tell us enemy number two, so there’s time yet.”
Instead, we saw a grainy picture of Mayu Nakashima shooting an elderly man in the head with a pink and black VP70 machine pistol. “Enemy number two is Mayu Nakashima,” the announcer said. “Before the war, she had killed multiple FBI and CIA agents. Now she is torturing former US intelligence and law enforcement agents and kidnapping and interrogating members of the Muslim and Latino population. She is also wanted in the deaths of multiple Dragon’s Teeth Warriors.”
“Wait,” Eliza said, “how the ‘ell’s she number two?”
“Took the words right out my-” I began. Then they showed the next picture.
“And number one,” the announcer said, “wanted for violations to disrupt the peace process, trafficking arms, and providing aid and comfort to Canadian and Mexican Special Forces, is former FBI Agent Connor George Hicks.”
“Well,” I said, looking at the craggy face of the man who had investigated me, “someone’s been busy.”
Eliza watched as I boiled the rice. “Is this all we’re going to ‘ave?” she asked. “Thought we’d get more stuff than this.”
“Actually, you’re kind of lucky,” I said. “I’ve been saving this hot meal for a special occasion. Apart from some cake mix I found, most of what we’re going to be eating is bread.”
“What kind of bread?” Eliza asked. “Please tell me it’s not that crusty stuff they fed us in prison.”
“The good news,” I said, “is that they’ve got the Wonderbread factory working again.” I opened a loaf and hander her a slice.
Eliza took it and nibbled on it. Her face slowly became more and more disgusted with each chew. “So they didn’t give us that awful stuff as punishment.” She took a few more chews. “You sure this is the bread and not the cake?”
“They kept the original recipe because it’s high in calories,” I said. “When you get a loaf of this stuff per person per bi-weekly period, you need every calorie you can. I’m an ‘important war asset,’ so I get two loaves per week. So I go around and trade my spare loaf with people for booze or give it away to people who really need it.”
Eliza looked at the loaf with dawning horror. “I got three slices a meal,” she said. She did some quick math. “I was eatin’ better’n you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Probably. Almost everyone here is dying, as I said before.” There was a long, long pause. “Want to celebrate by getting totally drunk?”
“How drunk can we get?” Eliza asked.
“Well,” I said, “seeing as how paper currency is only used for kindling and toilet paper, that loaf of bread you’re holding is this brave new world’s version of gold.”
“This shite’s worth its weight in gold?” Eliza said incredulously.
“You’re thinking in pre-war terms,” I said. “Gold is fucking worthless now. Food, any kind of food, is one of the few things that are worth anything. Guns and other weapons are worth more. Medicine tops even that.”
The assembly line below had been rumbling the entire time, but as Eliza’s eyes drifted down, I could tell she was suddenly remembering that I was making all three. “So this’s a bloody diamond mine, innit?” she whispered. “Don’t that make you nervous? Bein’ ‘ere alone, with nothing but the three most valuable things in the world?”
“Come with me,” I said, motioning her to follow me. We walked down into the basement. Two things were obvious: the hole where the Dragon’s Teeth had blown their way into the basement and took the factory that was now patched up and the shelves and the nine shelves of liquor.
Eliza paused, wondering what was so interesting, then she realized. “How did you fill all those shelves?”
“Bread and Power Sludge,” I said. “People will eat it now.”
“Jesus Christ,” Eliza said, shaking her head, “this truly is the worst timeline, innit?” She walked over to it and picked up a bottle of American whiskey that wasn’t bourbon shaped like a hip flask. “How the hell did this even survive?”
“Dunno,” I said, “but these bottles end up in a pile over there, ‘cause I’ve got nowhere else to put it.”
Eliza stared at the bottle for a moment. “Never heard of this before,” she said, “but now’s a good time to find out what it’s like.” She popped off the cork and took a swig. “Gah, ‘s been a while. Forgot ‘ow much this shit burns.”
“That’s the spirit!” I said. “Ha. Spirit.” I walked over and took a random bottle. I gave it a quick look-over. It was potentially the last bottle of over-proof rum in the state. It was at least a gallon bottle. I unscrewed the top and took a swig. The swig turned into a gulp, and that nearly turned into a chug. I stopped. I wanted to get shit-faced, not choke on my own vomit. I’d almost done that enough times these past few months. “It’s ok,” I said, seeing Eliza’s look of shock and worry. It wasn’t, but she didn’t have to know that.
“If you say so,” she said, and took a pointedly ladylike sip from her bottle. “Anyway, the Final Prophecy-”
I took another swig from the jug. Eliza shot me a look. “Sorry,” I said, “but that prophecy bullshit just never ends well for me.” The Final Prophecy had already predicted Alma and Mubashir. And Eliza had always been a big believer in it, and so was Mayu. I’d been introduced to Mayu’s obsession because of Eliza’s near-religious belief, and also been shot in the lung during an ill-fated expedition to Japan. My chest still twinged thinking about it. Just like other parts of my body ached and twinged from the combat I’d been in.
Eliza shrugged. “Fair ‘nough. Any rate, it ain’t over.” I took another swig. Luckily, Eliza had taken a sip as well and couldn’t say anything. “We ‘aven’t seen the fiery angels come down from the ‘eavens to wreak vengeance upon us yet, and they aren’t fighting.”
A few years ago, I would have protested. I would have told her she couldn’t have known that, that all this was crazy. That prophecies were bullcrap. Instead, I took another swig and said, “If we’re lucky, they’ll kill enough of us so that the famine won’t be a problem anymore.”
“Bloody ‘ell,” Eliza said, “You’re drunk already.”
“No I’m not,” I said. Or at least not drunk enough yet. Depending on what I was drinking, sometimes I didn’t realize it until I had reached my goal of blacking out twice a week. Once or twice, I’d woken up with the circles from a gun barrel on my skin, or one of the pistols I’d designed still in my mouth. That had been less a bug and more a feature, so I upped the nights I got drunk to three.
Suddenly, the overproof rum hit me like a freight train. My thoughts became muddled, and I blinked. “Now I am,” I said as things started to darken. I took another swig.
The next of the night passed in bits and pieces. One point, I remember yelling “THE LAST THERAPIST I HAD WAS NAMED JACK FUCKING DANIELS AND I KILLED HIM!” to an empty room while waving a bottle around. The next scene was me lying at the bottom of a staircase, my leg at a funny angle and Eliza calling my name from somewhere far off in the factory. The final time, my vision was blurry and I was looking at a wall, wondering why my hand, face, and foot hurt, and why there was a red spot on the wall, and why it was slowly falling to the floor.
Finally, I woke up in an office, light streaming from the window. My leg was in a make-shift cast, my nose had a splint, and the fingers of my left hand were also in a cast and bandaged, with the bandage having some red leak through. My throat was also sore like I had been shouting for hours on end. Across from me, Eliza glowered, her eyes puffy.
“You,” she said, “‘ave a fuckin’ problem.”
I got out of the car and walked over to one of the Legionnaires. “Hey, uh, what’s happening?” I asked.
“Your backup generators were shut off fifteen minutes ago,” the Legionnaire said. “We thought that it was a bomb or technical failure, but we were rapidly able to determine that someone manually shut off the power.”
I froze in horror. “You mean,” I said, horrified, “someone came in to the factory, without tripping alarms, walked either into the courtyard or the basement, again, still no alarms tripped, and turned off the backup power. That’s guarded by the most advanced security system in several hundred miles.”
“Yes,” the Legionnaire said.
“You wanna maybe give me some idea as to how that happened?”
I turned and walked back to Eliza. “So,” she said, “sounds like someone’s testin’ our defenses.”
“What do you want to bet it’s our Japanese friend?” I asked.
“Everything I ‘ave,” Eliza said. “Which is basically my dad’s army jacket an’ th’ rest of my clothes. But I’m just concerned ‘bout ‘ow we can stop ‘er.”
“No idea,” I said.
We waited around a bit for the Dragon’s Teeth to signal the all-clear. As we did, I noticed that people were starting to mill. Between the deaths from the war and the rampant disease and starvation, the cities had emptied out. Worcester, for instance, had gone from around a little over 180,000 people to several million refugees to just under fifty thousand. Most of the people who were still there who hadn’t spread out to the surrounding areas to forage or escape disease were now working on what appeared to be emergency shelters. These people seemed to be on break or too weak to do heavy lifting, so they had gone scavenging.
“When’s the last time these people’ve eaten?” Eliza asked. “It looks like a bloody zombie movie, don’t it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I only partially agreed with Eliza. Yes, these people looked skeletal and most had an odd, shuffling gait, but they were extremely silent. Not a one moaned. Instead, they looked at us with a restrained loathing, and there was a low, resentful muttering.
One of the Legionnaires raised his rifle and cocked it menacingly. “Shit,” I said, getting out of the car. “Hey!” I yelled, walking over to him.
“Oi! Nate!” Eliza yelled, “The fuck you doin’?”
I noticed that the other Legionnaires were cocking and raising their Pilum rifles, the hundred-round drum mags of 6.5mm caseless ammo more than enough to shred the crowd. I positioned myself between the Legionnaires and the crowd and said, “Stop. Think about what you’re doing.”
“Standard protocol,” one said. “Raise the stakes. If they refuse to disperse, open fire.”
“Great,” I said, “they taught you riot control on opposite day. No, you tell the crowd to disperse using your big boy words.”
Behind me, I could feel the crowd getting angrier. I could hear things like “Fuck you!” and “This is still America!” being shouted occasionally. The slogans were a little worrying.
“This isn’t a riot,” the Legionnaire said. “This is a potential follow-up to an attack-”
“Or it’s something unrelated!” I said. They paused. “Please,” I said after a few seconds, “try deescalating.”
There was a pause. During that time, I noticed that the crowd had become a bit less resentful and a bit more curious. Finally, the Dragon’s Teeth soldier said, “All citizens, this is an illegal gathering. Disperse in fifteen seconds, or we will open fire.”
There was grumbling. One angry civilian pointed directly at me and yelled, “Fuck you, snitch! We gon’ get you!”
“Disperse immediately!” a Legionnaire yelled back in response.
Meanwhile, another Legionnaire said, “Please enter the building.” He ushered me back into my Subaru and I drove into the factory.
After the Legionnaires and Picts that had made up the quick response force were all gone, I went to check out the security logs. Eliza followed me. “So I guess we’re collaborators or somethin’?” she asked. “And I guess you’re going t’pick at your flakin’ skin in front of a lady?”
“Sorry,” I said, stopping my fiddling with some of the burns I had experienced from America’s brief, tragic war with the Dragon’s Teeth. “It itches a lot.”
“Better than hurtin’ I guess,” Eliza said.
“It does that, too,” I said, “and I don’t think I can get painkillers anymore. The Jason Project didn’t feel that giving their creations painkillers was economical-”
“Yeah, I know, and plus the painkillers, and the means of producing more, are pretty much gone,” I said. “As for me being a collaborator, well, I’ve given up. You were there, weren’t you? You saw what all my bullshit amounted to in the face of them. Nothing.” I paused, “Plus, we’re one of the few sources of food left. Parts of the Midwest are still burning. I don’t collaborate, and even more people starve.”
“‘Ow many people are starving?” Eliza asked grimly, obviously not wanting to know the answer.
“Have some of the Dragon’s Teeth taken off their masks around you?” I asked. “Because sometimes they do around me, and you can tell that they aren’t eating that well. In fact, it’s easier to list the people who aren’t dying of malnutrition.”
Eliza suddenly looked very guilty. “I’m not sayin’ we were in a five-star ‘otel,” she said, “but I’m pretty sure we got at least three meals a day. At least, we got that when we weren’t in isolation.”
“Hey,” I said, “don’t feel guilty about eating. I’ve bartered with people who’ve done a lot worse than I thought possible to get booze and I don’t judge them.”
“What had they done?” Eliza asked.
“I… I don’t want to talk about it,” I said. “Some people, when they hear or do horrible things need to talk about it. Others need to avoid talking about and…”
“I understand,” Eliza said.
We sat in silence. “I’m gggoing t’check the factory,” Eliza said. “Make sure our friend hasn’t left us any surprises.”
“Go ahead,” I said. “Scanning the security logs might take a while.” The factory, being entirely automated by Andy, was a thing of beauty and the security system was no exception. It didn’t cover against Jumpers, Parahumans who could teleport or “jump” short distances, but they could be blocked by certain radio waves (unless their name was Mayu Nakashima) and only a select few could do a jump to place they didn’t have line-of-sight on without suffering horrible consequences. What the factory did have were a series of laser trip-wires (invisible and full-length lattice weave so that if something tripped it, it would be identified and classified,) atmospheric sensors that could “smell” poison gas and explosives, automated turrets, locking blast doors, 360-degree cameras, discrete metal detectors, dedicated lines that used to go to the Worcester PD department and now went to the local Dragon’s Teeth HQ, and, at the center of all of it, an AI that interpreted everything and made decisions. Badly. Before the Dragon’s Teeth had shut them off, I had only turned the ones with arcs of fire outside factory grounds on when the Teeth had come knocking and we hadn’t installed any interior ones. We also had turned many of the systems off because normal factory operations and literal bugs would cause the system to freak out and act like we were under attack.
Another problem with the system was that there were so many data points I couldn’t even begin to see what was going on. I would probably need a year to decipher it. Andy had been highly pressed for time, so everything was a basic command-line system and organized haphazardly. Many commands were broken and/or unintuitive.
As I was fighting with the interface, I heard Eliza come running back. She threw open the door to the security room, her hair askew and a piece of paper in her hand. “Nate,” she said, “you need to see this.”
I looked at the paper. It was actually an envelope with odd black stains on it, and smudged Japanese characters in what appeared to be…
“…Is that blood?” I asked.
“The moon script? Yeah,” Eliza said, “and it smells like Miss Nakashima’s.” I kicked myself for forgetting Eliza’s Lupine powers included enhanced smell. “It’s slightly differen’ but I’d wager it’s ‘er’s. That’s ‘ow I found it. Like she knew I’d be released and left it out so that only I’d find it.” She cocked her head. “Don’t know what the black stuff is. Grease paint, maybe? Smells like it, but I have no clue why it’d be there.”
“Don’t know either,” I said, “but the Hiragana spells out Nakashima.”
“Didn’t know you passed Japanese.”
“I didn’t,” I said, “but I learned some things. Anyway, what does it say?”
“If it’s in Japanese,” Eliza said, unsealing and extracting the letter, “we’re probably screwed.” She opened the letter and her face fell. “Oh. Well, at least we know what it says.”
She turned the letter around. I never really learned cursive, so reading the beautiful calligraphy took a few seconds.
I know where he is. You will help me.
After I read it aloud, I said, “We’re still pretty screwed though.”
Eliza was trying to make small talk with me as we drove back to Worcester. I noticed that she’d stutter, and her voice would catch on consonants. One instance was when she said, out of nowhere, “I mmmean, this-this isn’t…” There was a long pause, then she said, “Fuck. I forget what I was going to say.”
“You ok?” I asked.
“Sorry,” she said. “I just have some trrrouble talking when I get out of isolation.”“I did too,” I said. “It took me a long time to get things, y’know, working.”
“Still got some of the aphasia?” Eliza asked. “I know that Cross gets th-that e’rrytime ‘e gets bbback.”
“Is he still alive?” I asked.
“Yyyeah,” Eliza said. “Remember ‘ow ‘e, Eric and Doc went to hide that-that Castle bloke out back?” I nodded. “Buncha Berserkers jumped out and surprised them.”
“Anyone else?” I asked.
“Oro an’ two of ‘er mates are alive, dunno ‘ow ‘an neither do they,” Eliza said. “John got pinned under some rubble, they ‘ad to dig ‘im out.”
“What about MC Disaster, Ray-Gun and the Monk?” I asked.
“Disaster’s alive,” Eliza said darkly. “To ‘ear ‘im tell it, ‘e’s not lucky. They got ‘im in the spine. ‘E, Ray-Gun an’ the Monk were firin’ at the Teeth below an’ the ones inside shot ‘em in the back.”
“That’s more than I was expecting,” I said. “Hopefully we’ll still have some booze left over when they get out.”
Eliza looked at me strangely. I noticed that my hands were shaking as I gripped the wheel. “Maybe you’ve ‘ad enough,” she said.
“You haven’t been out here that long,” I said. “And it might not affect you, because, well, you don’t know the area. But this,” I nodded to the burnt trees, blown up buildings, and scrapped vehicles along the road, “doesn’t get better as we go along. It’s even worse when you get out of the factory and look at all the starving people. Try going out every day and realizing that you are the only person who isn’t starving to death.”
“Th-then why dddon’t you stay inside?” Eliza asked.
“Because,” I said, “if I don’t go out and talk to people every few hours, the voices come back.” I took my eyes off the road for a few minutes. “Do you really think I’d get out of a year of isolation just to voluntarily undergo it?”
“Nothing,” Eliza said “you said has anything to do with booze.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her staring at me. Eventually her eyes strayed from my face to the graveyard of cars and burnt trees we were currently driving by. “But you’re right. I think I need a bloody drink.”
We had just merged onto a new highway (much easier these days now that everyone was dead) when I saw sirens behind us. “The bloody ‘ell?” Eliza said. “Are there still cops?”
“Yeah,” I said as I pulled into the breakdown lane, even though I could have parked so I was blocking all three lanes of traffic and theoretically not caused a slowdown. “They started reinstating any police officer who was still alive in January.” I realized Eliza might not know the month. “That was last month.”
“There seems t’be a shortage of police cars,” Eliza said looking in the mirror. I followed her gaze. The police car was a minivan from the late 90’s that had been hurriedly painted a soothing powder blue, but the work was so shoddy even at a distance you could see the original brown. The hood had been painted white with black border and sported a stylized gold badge decal. The sirens attached to the hood were on slightly cockeyed.
Two people got out of the minivan. One was an older man in a police uniform that was the same soothing blue as the minivan, but somewhat more well-made. The other was a Legionnaire with just a Gladius SMG in a sling across his chest. He followed the cop closely, so close that if I had been the cop and the Legionnaire had just been my partner instead of a member of a genocidal occupying army, my personal space would have been feeling extremely violated.
The cop, who was sweating profusely despite the chill, tapped on the window. I rolled it down. “Good morning,” I said. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Just a standard check,” the officer said. To distract himself from the looming Legionnaire, he added, “This weather, huh? Sky’s so dark it looks like night.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Also, did you hear it’s the same temperature here as it is in the poles.”
“You kidding?” the officer asked. “No wonder the rivers are all overflowing despite not getting any rain. Fucking weather.” He turned, noticing Eliza. “Excuse my language, miss.”
“Not a prob,” Eliza said. “Not a prob at all.”
“Oh, you’re from England? In case you didn’t know, there should’a been snow. There hasn’t. Crazy, crazy weather. Me, personally, I think it’s from all the plasma that the Teeth-” the cop was interrupted by the Legionnaire clearing his throat. “Oh, sorry,” the officer said, a note of panic in his voice. “This is a standard search. Please exit the vehicle.”
We did as instructed. “Is this on Olaf’s orders?” I asked.
The cop started to say something, but the Legionnaire cut him off causing everyone else to jump. I, personally, had never heard one speak outside a weird prayer they’d recited around me when I was in North Korea. “Yes,” he said, “but thanks to your divine protection from the Goddess Thana, you will not suffer his full wrath.”
“Tell her thanks,” I said. And maybe also to come get her boy, I added silently.
“Your supplication has been noted by the Death Mother,” the Legionnaire intoned portentously. He turned to the cop and said, “Search the car.”
“I see the Fourth is gone as well,” I said as the cop began to search the car, looking for who-knows-what. He wouldn’t find anything except crumbs and maybe a liquor bottle.
“So’s the rest of the Constitution,” the cop said, shaking the driver’s manual to see if anything fell out. “Luckily, my colleagues who are happiest about that don’t last long.” I suddenly remembered Olaf’s desire to liquidate the police force and felt like warning him. “Anyway, looks all clear.”
As we drove away, Eliza said, “So that was our local Vichy rep, eh? Lovely chap for a collaborator.”
“Hell,” I said, “compared to me, he’s practically resistance. I’m producing weapons for them and he might be helping Canadian SpecOps.” We were silent for a long time. I smiled. “It helps that I pay for my drink with some of my product. The booze I pay for with a Maccabee and a couple hundred rounds of ammo is better than the booze I find abandoned.”
“Nate,” Eliza said. “I don’t know whether to congratulate you or beat you senseless.”
“Honestly,” I said, “I’m cool with either one at the moment.” I sighed. “I know I need therapy. Probably some meds as well. Only problem is that all the shrinks are either dead or worse off than we are right now.”
Eventually, we were back in Worcester. I turned down into the maze of rubble that led to the factory where I pretty much lived. We would pass the occasional survivor. All looked malnourished to some degree, and most, disturbingly, seemed sick. They wandered around, some with desperate, others in shock, and a select few who had some sort of reaction to the Dragon’s Teeth hallucinogenic gas and were now lost in their own world. It looked like a third-world country that had suffered twenty years of war.
We were only a turn or two away when I saw a young black woman walking in the opposite direction wearing very feminine clothes that were suspiciously in good shape. The state things were in, there was no way to find clothes that looked new. My jeans and t-shirts I wore were slowly falling apart, and I wasn’t living the life most other people were. Maybe things were getting better, or someone had found a stash of clothes.
It was only for an instant I could look at her, and we were on our way through the maze of bombed-out streets. And then the factory was in view.
And in front of the factory were about fifteen Charon APCs with Picts and Legionnaires throwing up a cordon.
We left the office and headed to one of the dorm rooms in the Harvard quad. On the way, we passed the executed JTF2 operators. I had been hearing some things about Canada and how they were dealing with the fallout of the Dragon’s Teeth War. Mexico was being cautious; after all, they had their troubles before the war. Canada, meanwhile, had taken two strategic plasma forces when they had advanced south before retreating. The first thing they had done after signing the armistice was make a compact with New Zealand and Australia that was very much like what had been the EU, except they also were uniting under a join military structure.
“So,” I said, “You planning on taking the fight to Canada?”
“No,” Olaf said. “We’re using the Swiss strategy.” When I shot him a quizzical look, he said, “Switzerland was one the only European country to resist longer than a few months. After we defeated this country, we decided that if they didn’t want to submit to the Death Mother, we didn’t have to feed them. The problem is, their population was too bloated to be maintained without assistance and they’d forgotten how to grow their own food. Besides, their soil is pretty much completely barren. We didn’t say it, but their choices were to join with us, starve to death, or find… other means of sustenance.” He turned to me and smiled. “They just agreed to join us last week.”
“Of course,” Olaf said. “Shame that we are reconsidering using the tactic.”
“Well,” I said, “considering it’s technically genocide, I’m glad you aren’t doing that.”
“It’s the only way to win,” Olaf said. “The Jacob’s Project put us on this path, and we have to complete it or die. We can change course slightly so the Death Mother isn’t too pained, but I will put the lives of my brothers over her comfort.”
“Alternatively,” I said, “you could always leave Earth and go back to whatever planet you came from.” We had entered one of the dorms just as I said this. Dragon’s Teeth lounged in the various tasteful chairs and their boots had scuffed the fine wood floor. Guns rested against richly paneled walls, wood tables and leather chairs. If the Dragon’s Teeth ever left, it would take a fortune to restore it.
Two Legionnaires in full body armor frog-marched a pale, red-haired woman with green eyes and fox ears down the stairs. She stared at me hesitantly, and looked back and forth from me to Olaf, as if she wasn’t sure I was real. It was Eliza.
“Eliza,” I said. “You ok? Have you heard from the others?”
“They say they put me in isolation a week ago,” she said slowly, as if she’d forgotten how to speak. “but they lie ‘bout that. ‘Aven’t heard from any of them since.” She paused. “Where were you?”
“I was in solitary for probably about six months,” I said. “Then they let me out.”
“I think it was only a few days we held you,” Olaf said.
“Fucking liar,” I said. “The leaves were falling when you brought me in, they were blooming when you brought me back out. Where are the rest of them?”
“I have a deal for you,” Olaf said. “When the UN makes its little inspection, you can get everyone back. All at once. Just be cooperative.”
“When?” I asked. “I want a concrete time frame.”
“I was thinking that the first stop on our tour would be to release some prisoners,” Olaf said. “They see how well we’ve kept prisoners, and that we’re reintegrating them into society.”
“Such as it is.”
Olaf rolled his eyes. “Such as it is. We will fix much of this by the time they arrive.”
Eliza was looking at us questioningly, so for her benefit, I said, “Mass starvation and multiple outbreaks aren’t something you can fix in… how long? A month? A week?”
“Sounds like fun,” Eliza said, some of her normal sardonic behavior coming back in. “Can I go back to isolation?”
“He’s getting full rations,” Olaf said, “despite being an ungrateful little shit. And if you really want to go back to isolation…” Eliza’s face went even paler and she began to tremble. “Thought not,” Olaf said. “It’s amazing how normal humans think brutality is the end-all be-all to horrible things. The success rate for making people talk just by locking them in a room with no human contact or knowledge of the outside world astounds people.”
“The UN inspectors will realize its torture,” I said, “and they will ding you for it.”
“Ooooh, scary,” Olaf said.
The room went yellow and things began to blur. “I am going to ding you.” I didn’t need to see all the Dragon’s Teeth drop to their knees to know it was Alma. The creepy leader of the Teeth was pretty much a ghost at this point. “Olaf,” she said, her monotone voice more dangerous than usual, “of all clone commanders, you seem to be the one having the most difficulty adapting. It’s almost like you prefer the old ways, if not the old commanders.”
“The old ways are satisfying,” Olaf said.
“The old ways are going to kill millions,” Alma said. “I only allowed Switzerland because it was a back door into Europe. Never again. If you fail the UN inspection, I will send you back to Thebes. Are we understood?”
“Nobody’s going to pass,” Olaf said. “No matter what we do. And eventually, you’ll need me. So everything you’re doing here is pointless.”
“You have your orders, Commander,” Alma said. “Follow them.”
Olaf glared at her for a moment. Then he said, “Yes. Ma’am.”
Alma turned to me. “I have something to tell you, Nathan.”
“No, you don’t,” I said. “I think we’re done talking after you let him” I jerked my head over to Olaf, “run roughshod over my home for about a year. Now if you’ll excuse me-”
“Mayu Nakashima is not accounted for.”
“What?” I asked. “How can she not be accounted for?” If there was one thing that could be worse than the Teeth, it was Mayu Nakashima finding what she was looking for.
“We don’t know,” Alma said.
“If she’s in the US, and if I were her, I wouldn’t be anywhere else, she’s somehow managed to avoid thousands of checkpoints manned by highly trained individuals equipped with tech she couldn’t have thought up while she was in stasis,” Olaf said. “She’s been… a pain.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “she’s killed a few more Berserkers than I have?” Olaf glowered.
“We decided,” Alma said, “that it was safer to have her go after you than have her head straight to Mubashir. That’s why we’re releasing Eliza.”
“Wait,” Eliza said, “I can barely bloody walk, and you’re asking me to do 24/7 protection on someone? I mean, I’ll do it, but ‘e’s a fuckin’ goner.”
“She won’t kill him,” Alma said. “She needs him to get to Mubashir.” Mubashir Mubarak (also known as Moob) was the thing that could make Mayu worse than the Dragon’s Teeth. He had powers that could reshape reality and seemed to control him rather than the other way around. He could avoid unleashing them, but Mayu might have a way to change that.
“She won’t mean to kill ‘im, but she’ll flip for ‘alf a bloody second an’ he’ll be chokin’ on ‘is own blood!” Eliza yelled, incensed. “Did you fuckin’ see ‘er when she went for ‘im in Hawaii?”
“I know you didn’t,” Alma said. “And I know that when I can make contact with her, her mind is becoming rapidly more organized.”
“Wait,” I said, a sinking feeling in my stomach, “you can’t find her with you power? And she’s becoming functional but still trying to find Moob?”
“It’s her only way of focus, I think,” Alma said. “Her obsessiveness is letting her do incredible things. I just have a suspicion that if someone doesn’t let her down gently, she’ll snap. Or she’ll somehow shape Mubashir into what she thinks he should be.”
“You can’t pay me enough to get close to her,” I said. “Being around her, no matter what my history with her is, is pretty much an end run at this stage. The likely scenario, no matter what safeguards you put in place, no matter how much progress she’s made, is that she will kill me. She’ll find out I don’t know where Mubashir is, or she’ll snap like Eliza said, or you’ll send the Teeth to try and rescue me, and I will die. And I’d be fine with that, but you decided to release Eliza just in time for… for this. Fuck you.”
Alma stared at me for a long time. “You,” she said, “are not the only one with a death sentence. I am trying to fix that, but I need help.”
I sighed. “I know, something worse is coming.” I looked at Eliza. If I pushed this, she would probably be sent back to solitary. “Fuck. I have no choice, don’t I?”
My beat-up Subaru station wagon drove down 495 from Worcester to Boston. It probably was one of more well-maintained things on the road.
For instance, my body was still recovering from the various burns that I had sustained in the Dragon’s Teeth plasma bomb out west. They still hurt and itched, and my back wasn’t doing too well from where a Dragon’s Teeth Berserker had thrown me through a desk. Also, my leg, which had been injured in a training session, had been acting up recently as well.
The few other civilian vehicles on the road were also pretty messed up. Unlike my Subie, there were only a few cars on the road that didn’t have shattered windows or smashed bodywork. Many had their frames bent so badly that I was sure they shouldn’t be driving. Every so often, I would see a car that had finally stopped working somewhere in the process of being pulled off to the side of the road where Dragon’s Teeth spider droids would dismantle it. Sometimes, I would see them broken down, either on the side of the road or in one of the lanes, other times I would see Dragon’s Teeth vehicles pulling them onto the vehicular graveyards on the sides of the road, and other times I would see spider droids breaking them down and putting the bits in dumpsters. Most often I would see the graveyards off to the sides of the highway, a relic of America’s former status of a nation of drivers.
The vehicles I saw the most were under the control of the Dragon’s Teeth. Over a year ago, these psychic clone soldiers had invaded most of the world. Russia, China, both Koreas, all of Europe and a triangle between Turkey, Israel and Iran had all been taken over as well as the United States. Almost every naval vessel had been sunk or captured, as well as most of the shipping. The US and several other major food-producing nations had most of their harvest destroyed, livestock slaughtered or accidentally released, and many of their farmers murdered, so starvation was rampant. Luckily, there were a lot less mouths to feed.
The Dragon’s Teeth had been, according to their new leader, created and controlled by a group called the Jason Project. They had apparently planned on liquidating a larger chunk of the population of captured nations and pushing onwards. That was also evidenced by the bombed-out buildings I’d pass. The East Coast had been one of the last places to fall, and, when it looked like Canada and South America may have saved us, the fighting had been intense.
Eventually, I got into Cambridge. The Dragon’s Teeth had set up a regional HQ in what had been the Harvard campus. Somehow, that hadn’t been destroyed. Most of the other buildings had been leveled and a few were still burning from plasma weaponry.
The depopulation of Cambridge was made painfully clear by my ability to find a parking space. I parked in front of what had once been a store, but was now bits of crumbling frame and a crater made out of charred construction material and glass. Another casualty of the Dragon’s Teeth’s plasma-based weaponry.
Several Legionnaires, Dragon’s Teeth soldiers with Roman-inspired armor, began checking under my car with little wheelie mirrors. An Arachne spider droid also was using a chemical sniffer to check for explosives. Eventually, one Legionnaire signaled for me to get out of the car. I did and they quickly frisked and scanned me. Then one Legionnaire motioned for me to follow.
The Harvard campus had significantly improved from the last time I had been there. Six months ago, I had been locked up in those dorms and had seen the various methods of punishment the Dragon’s Teeth had employed. During the first week, they had been hanging two or three people to each streetlight and lining people up against the wall every four hours around the clock. By the second week, executions had almost completely stopped. That didn’t mean that people weren’t still dying. Starvation and crime were starting to kill hundreds, and the Jason Project apparently had no idea how to deal with that other than killing. Most of the Dragon’s Teeth, however, were tired of killing.
The person I was about to see, however, just wanted to kill one more person. When I got into the room, I saw that Olaf was still massive as usual. The man, with his baby face, pale skin, and huge body, was using a desk as a chair. Dragon’s Teeth Berserkers were so huge that most chairs were ridiculously tiny. Olaf had also removed his exosuit to avoid shattering the desk. I remembered how he had thrown me through one a little over a year ago. Olaf didn’t like me.
“Nathan,” he said, looking at me coldly, “how’s the factory going?”
“As well as can be expected,” I said. I looked out into the courtyard below. “I thought Alma said no more executions.” In the courtyard below, a dozen or so men in ratty clothes were being lined up against the wall.
“She said no more civilians,” Olaf corrected. “Those guys are JTF2. Canada’s been violating the cease fire a lot recently.” As a peal of gunfire rang out, he said, “I think the reinstated cops have been helping them, but the Death Mother wants hard evidence before I liquidate them. Anyway, we’ve been getting off-track.”
“The factory is at capacity,” I said. “In fact, it’s going over-capacity. I’m pushing the machinery to its limit. By the by, you should know that when it breaks down, and it’s a miracle it hasn’t broken down yet, the only one who can fix it is Andy Sebaldi. And he’s in Australia.”
“And are you sure that all the weapons are going to Dragon’s Teeth forces? No clandestine deliveries to any resistance forces?”
“What resistance forces?” I asked. “If there are any resistance forces, none of them have made a move to contact me. Besides, I’m not stupid. I know you have a bunch of my friends.”
“The Dragon’s Teeth high command is turning over a new leaf,” Olaf said in a bored, sarcastic tone of voice, rolling his eyes dramatically. “We’re shocked, shocked, that you would make such accusations.”
“Let me rephrase that,” I said, “I know you have my friends. And I know Alma doesn’t have as tight a leash on you guys as she’d like me to believe.” After a pause, I added, “you know, I’m still not sure how many of my friends survived. I haven’t talked to them in several months, either.”
“And what are you going to do about it?” Olaf asked. “Right now, I’m just surprised you’ve been able to sober up enough to drive down here.”
“I can see you shaking,” he said disgustedly, “and I have some contacts among you people. What have to be the last few bottles of Jack Daniels from here to Worcester came into your possession and you’ve been moving on to the Johnny Walker and Knob Creek. Just keep making guns, and we’ll keep your friends alive.”
“Maybe,” I said, a rage burning inside, “this is a sign I need something else. A carrot.”
“My carrot is that I follow orders,” Olaf said, “and I act within the Geneva Convention.”
“You wanna see my stick?” I asked. “I can go home, get loaded as fuck, and break every single assembly line except the ones that make food and medicine. God knows everyone needs those two, and I won’t increase starvation just to get back at you.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know how those machines worked,” Olaf said, as if he had caught me in a lie.
“I have no clue how to repair serious problems,” I said, “but I spent several years learning how to break things. Then, after I’m done, I might just kill myself. That sounds like fun.” I began counting on my fingers. “The Picts will be pissed off because my redesigned of the 416 will stop, the Zulus will be pissed because they like the armaments I make, Alma will be pissed because I’m dead and that fouls up her plans, and the Legionnaires will be pissed because Alma’s pissed.” Olaf’s eyes narrowed. “And,” I said, on a roll, “even if none of that matters, I still win because I’ve turned off one more stream of resupply for you.” I sat down on a chair, breathing heavily.
In the silence that followed, Olaf’s head twitched. Finally he said, “You’ve got a very good understanding of how things work.”
“I doubt it’s any better than most of the countries you haven’t taken over,” I said. “You’re not as mysterious or unknowable as you think you are. And your position isn’t sustainable. You’ve taken a beating and overextended yourself. There’s no way you haven’t, and the other countries players are going to catch up.”
Olaf cocked his head. “Are you saying we should have kept going? Because that’s what I’ve been saying.”
“No,” I said, “I’m saying you’re lucky you stopped when you did. It’s only a matter of time before the first mass uprising happens. It’s only a matter of time before the first IEDs are planted. And I know that they’ve already started sniping at you guys already. You’re going to spend the rest of your lives putting down partisans, no matter what I do.”
“I think the world is going to be too busy starving to be fighting,” Olaf said, “but I might welcome that. It’ll solve the food distribution problem.”
I laughed. “Oh my God,” I said, trying to breathe, “the Jacob Project had no idea how to lead. We’re all going to die. We’re all going to slowly starve to death because they forgot people need food and people to grow it!”
“I’m glad you find this amusing,” Olaf said. “But that reminds me, we need to produce more Power Sludge.”
“The reason those lines are running at eighty percent,” I said, “is because if we fuck those up, that source of food disappears. I am not risking that.”
“That’s too bad,” Olaf said, “because we’ve killed most of the farmers.”
I leaned back. “Then congratulations,” I said, “The Jacob Project has killed us. We’re fucked. Farming is hard.”
“In other news,” Olaf said, trying not to seem worried, “The UN, or what’s left of it, is requesting they send in a monitoring detachment to prevent human rights abuses.”
“That should be fun,” I said. “You guys are pretty much designed to commit war crimes and they can’t do jack shit.”
“So you aren’t going to help?”
“What am I going to do to help?” I asked. “If I tell them what angels you are, all that’s going to do is just make them not trust me. You guys used psychoactive gases and left millions of witnesses, that has to be about thirty-six war crimes per person exposed or something.”
“That’s not the point,” Olaf said. “The remaining nations know that we’ve radically changed doctrine. They want to know that it’s moving in the right direction. There’s also secondary concerns, like non-proliferation, environmental protection, and economic recovery.”
“Did they say it was secondary?” I asked. “Because all of this seems like they’d be primary.” Environmental concerns, to me at least, seemed like it could be a huge concern. After all, the most powerful remaining member of the UN was Canada. Canada was near the northern ice caps. Based on how Christmas this year was a chilly seventy degrees Fahrenheit, those ice caps must be decreasing at a rather alarming rate.
“No,” Olaf said, now obviously concerned. After a while, he asked, “Would you like to meet with the people who’ve been captured?”
“That is what I’ve spent the past few months lobbying for,” I said.
I take a deep breath and say to the Berserkers, “If I surrender, will you let everyone else surrender as well?”
“Take a look,” the Berserker said. “I know your cameras are up.” I did, and quickly notice that the defenders who aren’t fighting back, the injured, the tired, and the ambushed, were being zip-tied and secured. “If I had it my way,” the Berserker talking to me said, “I’d drop a tactical plasma bomb on you and piss on the ashes. But the Death Mother wants you alive. Oh, and don’t think about fighting back. Your little rip-off guns may work on the other Believers, but not on our armor.”
I looked at the fight again. Sure enough, they were doing fairly well except against the normally armored Deet soldiers, but were bouncing off the Berserkers like spit balls. It didn’t really affect my decision. I was done. I turned to the intercom once again, and said, “Ok, the Teeth have offered a deal. Basically, unconditional surrender. Do what you want with it.”
I then turned to Eliza. “Well, we might as well give up.”
She stood up and began to roll up the Kevlar panel. “I don’t think of it as giving up,” she said, her voice so quiet I could barely hear. “I think of it as living to fight another day.”
She then opened the heavy security door, revealing the massive frames of two Berserkers. They were too big to fit through the door, so the stepped aside and gestured for us to come out. I pushed myself out, and Eliza, after realizing I was moving out under my own power, exited before me.
The Berserkers quickly searched us and took any weapons they found. Then, one threw Eliza over his back and another did the same to me and the group began heading downstairs. When we got to the basement, I saw all the injured and captured defenders were brought down there. The one carrying Eliza threw her on the floor, but the one carrying me continued to walk off.
“OI!” Eliza said, getting up, “THE ‘ELL YOU TAKING ‘IM?” The Berserker, in response, kicked her in the stomach and stood on her.
“Hey!” I yelled. “What the fuck?”
The two Berserkers carrying me just continued on. We went through the sewers, eventually, after a good long while of walking, coming up around the train station. That station was now crawling with Charons, vehicles that seemed specifically designed to imitate Chrysler Escalades, and a new tank that looked like one of those WWI landships, except bigger. The vast majority of Dragon’s Teeth were Legionaires, and I could see that they, at least, were still mostly carrying their Pilum bullpup rifles and Gladius SMGs. Their distinctive Roman-inspired armor was either in a pixelated urban pattern, or a shiny chrome-like color polished to mirror finish. I saw a few armors change color.
There were a few of the new type of Dragon’s Teeth in what I now saw was African-inspired armor, and I noticed that many of them carried Pilum and Gladius as well, but they seemed to use my weapons when they could get their hands on them. I also saw Picts in their darker than black armor inspired by Gaelic designs, and to a man they had ditched their primary weapons for AK and AR-pattern weapons with the occasional MP5, MPX or FAL.
I was taken up into an office. The only other Berserkers I had seen were standing by the door, three on each side. Two had miniguns and ballistic shields and their Norse-inspired armor was bulkier and appeared to have a more powerful exoskeleton system than the others. The other four seemed to have taken their machineguns from dead US soldiers. Unlike the other Dragon’s Teeth soldiers who had only looked at me in passing, these guys had their glowing red eyes locked on me.
Inside the room, was a wooden desk and several bits of creature comfort. I knew this because the Berserker threw me down onto the desk, shattering it. A picture of what had to be the children of the office’s owner fell onto my face, and an LCD monitor clattered to the ground. Underneath my back, I could feel wooden splinters lacerating my back and a smashed plastic keyboard. My back hurt like hell. Above me, the fluorescent lights set in cheap, ugly asbestos ceiling tiles vibrated and other lights danced, mocking the pounding in my head.
“Please try and escape,” the Berserker said. I looked at him. He was wearing the bigger armor, but his ballistic shield was missing and his minigun was holstered on a backpack-like device. He then kneeled down and leaned in close so his huge mask was almost touching my face. “The Death Mother might want you alive, but I want you dead. You and your little team were the first infantry unit to kill one of us with small arms, and then you scrapped my mission to Japan.” All I could do in response was groan in pain.
He stood up suddenly. “Excuse me. I need to talk someone. Hopefully, I’ll be able to give him a retirement present.” He then left the room. His exiting through and closing of the door was surprisingly graceful for someone who had to exit at sort of an angle while ducking. His boots, however, caused the entire room to shake and dust to fall off the walls.
I, on the other hand, was dealing with what had to be a concussion. My back was also in such bad shape to the point that I was surprised to be feeling my legs. Even if I wanted to leave (which I didn’t,) it would have taken a superhuman effort just to sit up. I rolled off the desk, hoping to be able to find some painkillers in the shattered drawers, but instead spent the next several minutes crying in pain.
To distract myself from the pain, I began to wonder what kind of person had used the office. Not whether or not they were alive, no. That was too depressing. Instead, I tried to guess what kind of person they were. For instance, did they get that original Star Wars poster because they became a fan when they were a kid like I had, or did they watch it in theaters? Or, as the other posters indicated, did he just like to collect advertisements and propaganda? What was that award with the statue of a train in recognition of? Those certificates, were they for graduation? Awards? Something else? When I tried to get a better look at the framed pieces of paper, pain shot up and down my spine.
I decided to turn back to the desk. Well, apparently this guy had some chronic pain. First drawer had a bottle of prescription-grade ibuprofen. The bottle said “Take one every 12 hours,” but I took two. They did nothing.
For fifteen or so minutes, I waited for them to kick in. I also waited for my head to stop spinning like a dreidel. The sound of a landing VTOL didn’t really help matters. At least the telepathic communications and electric motors made the Teeth relatively quiet for a military. Then I heard shouting and stomping.
The door flung open and a man stomped in. “Your rules of engagement don’t allow the taking of prisoners! And you’re only allowed to use weapons provided by the Jason Project! What the hell is going on, Commander Olaf?” He then paused, and asked, “and why is that person still alive?”
A Berserker, possibly the one who had brought me up, said, “Orders. Wish I could kill him, make it nice and violent.” I could almost hear him shrug as he said that.
“Wait…” the man said, “Who ordered you?”
The Berserker, or Commander Olaf as he was apparently known, laughed. “You know who.”
“Capsaicin Umbra,” the strange man said in clear voice that was doing a very good, but not quite convincing, impression of someone who wasn’t panicking.
“What,” Olaf said, with a barely contained chuckle, “do you think she was doing for the past ten years? Do you really think Ulfric or any of the others leaving was an accident? She was weakening our triggers.”
“Olaf,” the Jason Project member said, “You can’t trust Subject One-Four-Eight. She… she…”
“She’s been in my head since before you started your brainwashing,” Olaf said. “Comforting me and my brothers. Even the dead. Even people who we’ve been forced to kill for your stupid little quest to destroy the world or whatever.”
“We aren’t destroying the world,” the Jason Project member said, “we’re saving it.”
In response, Olaf sighed. “You’re lucky that She ordered the retribution to be painless.”
“Wait! No no-!”
There was a crack of a pistol, and the Jason Project member began screaming. “Whoops,” Olaf said. “That round didn’t go where I wanted it to. Too bad, we’re low on ammo and I don’t really want to waste another bullet.” I heard the thump of Olaf walking to the window sill. Eventually, I could see Olaf’s armored body appear in my field of view. He took his helmet off with a hiss and turned around. “Shame I couldn’t do that to you.”
Seeing his face finally confirmed something I had suspected for a while now. “Ulfric’s a Berserker, too, isn’t he?” I asked. “That guy I knew at NIU. He looked a lot like you, except with crazy eyes.” The square, baby face, the gray eyes, the brutally short hair… Physically, he looked exactly like Ulfric. However, there was something more… there about him, if that makes sense. If he ripped off someone’s head, I wouldn’t be wondering if he knew what had done.
“Exactly like me, I’d bet,” Olaf said. “Luckily he’s…” Suddenly his face went extremely pale.
“He’s here, isn’t he?” I asked. Olaf, meanwhile, began to pace nervously. “Hey, Olaf?” I asked. “You ok?”
“Yes,” he said. “But not for long.”
The door smashed open. A large whirlwind of blue NIU hoodie, black cargo pants, and combat boots ran around and smashed Olaf through the window. The figure let Olaf dangle through the window for what had to feel to the victim like an eternity, the newcomer’s other fist raised, ready to smash into Olaf’s face. I couldn’t see either one’s face or even much of Olaf’s body, and I definitely couldn’t make out any psionic conversations. Eventually, the figure I assumed to be Ulfric pulled in Olaf and threw him away one-handed like garbage. Olaf seemed to be thankful nothing worse had happened.
Ulfric, meanwhile, turned around to survey the scene with a look of horror on his face. I must have looked like shit and the Jason Project member was now moaning horribly. “Please…” he whimpered, “help me…”
Ulfric’s look of horror turned to one of disgust when he saw the Jason Project member. He then turned to me and picked me up like a baby. I screamed and groaned as my back moved. Ulfric, with his typical grace, managed to get us out the door without bumping my head. As we walked down the stairs, he said, “Sorry.”
“You seem… better than you were,” I said.
“Still have trouble talking,” he said. “Because of my meds. I’m more alert. More aware.” He paused, then said, “I hate it.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I have to live with the stuff I do when I have a ‘good’ day,” he said. “And I realize the stuff I don’t have.”
I suddenly was reminded of what I had seen in Japan. The hallucination of what seemed to be a representation of the Dragon’s Teeth hive mind. Thousands, maybe even millions, of lights, in colors I couldn’t even comprehend surrounding a black hole. And close to the black hole, was a speck of light separate from all the others. “Hey, Ulfric?” I asked. “Are you, you know, connected to the rest of the Dragon’s Teeth?”
He stared at me for a while. “Sort of,” he said. I noticed that as we walked, the various Dragon’s Teeth recoiled from him. Again, I was reminded of the hive mind. He eventually set me down among injured Dragon’s Teeth and began to wander off, leaving me alone in a room full of dying clones and clone medics.
The room turned yellow and things began to swim. I turned around to see Alma looking out over the casualties. “I failed,” she said. “These are good people, compelled to do horrible, horrible things from birth.”
“So,” I said, “I take it the Jason Project weren’t good people?”
“Well,” Alma said, “I might not be the best person to ask. They did kidnap and technically kill me.”
“Technically kill you?” I asked.
“I was the anchor for their entire psionic network,” Alma said, looking out over the injured soldiers. “I think that’s why I survived. I was split among all the clones. All my children. I remember every single one of them and I keep their souls in me.” She shrugged. “I guess it’s not really scientific, but it’s the best way to describe it.”
“Any other non-Dragon’s Teeth souls get sucked up?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Everyone’s. It’s hard. So many people die in pain and rage, and I can feel all of it, the bad bits especially. Someday I’m going to either become numb or insane. Or maybe I’ll finally just stop existing.” She turned to look at me, and I heard a bit of hope in her dead monotone. “It’s physically impossible to last forever, right? I’m not a god?”
For some reason, the idea of her being hopeful that she’d die chilled me to the bone. It also reminded me of how Mubashir believed his powers were a punishment. To avoid thinking about it, I asked, “So, what do you want from me?”
“Not just you,” Alma said. “There are probably only one or two things that only you can do, but you might be able to convince your friends of some things.
“First, I don’t want any more of my children to die. You aren’t fully in control of that, I know, but you and your friends could do enough damage to be… mildly tragic.”
“We don’t seem to be able to do that much,” I said.
“You gave them enough hope to keep fighting,” she said. “And now I have to spend all eternity with people who died killing each other, feeling the pain they felt at the moment of their death.” I looked away uncomfortably. “All you did,” Alma said, her voice breaking with sadness, “is cause a thimbleful more suffering.” She composed herself and then, in her normal monotone, said, “I’d prefer to minimize that. You understand, right?”
“And I’d prefer that the Dragon’s Teeth hadn’t wrecked everything,” I said, “but here we are.”
“Do you think that I didn’t try to stop that?” Alma asked, her skin-crawling monotone becoming more and more icy. “Do you think I like feeling the eternal torment of everyone who died in this useless war?” She looked slightly upwards, as if looking through the building. “Something is coming. It’s going to kill even more people. Stay out of my way or I might get tired of you being alive. Understand?”
I recoiled at the anger. Alma turned back to me. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped. But I’ve worked hard to get to the point where I can have coup.”
“Honestly,” I said, “you can do whatever you want. You have the power.”
“That’s another thing,” she said. “I’m too powerful. I’m losing my connection with the rest of humanity. That’s the reason I went to NIU. The rest of the people I know, except maybe Ulfric, treat me like either a god or a monster.” She paused. “Never mind. The last member of the Jacob Project has been accounted for.”
“They really were terrible, weren’t they?” I asked.
“Most of them, yes,” Alma said. “There were a few exceptions, but we’re getting off-topic. The thing is, I need an anchor.”
“Someone, or several someones, to talk to. To listen to. To make sure I’m not becoming too divorced from reality. Who better than some of my former classmates from NIU?”
“And am I the first?” I asked. “I’m flattered.”
“No, I asked Eliza first.” She then said, “There’s also another person who might need help. Mubashir Mubarak. In terms of power, he’s the closest thing to me. He’ll need help eventually, and he might go to you.”
“And why don’t you go help him yourself?” I asked. “You’re probably the only one who can understand him.”
“I already have too much power,” Alma said, “and you want me to cozy up with Mubashir? Besides, I don’t think he’d take too kindly to me just suddenly appearing.”
“Point taken,” I said. “But what about Mayu? And what’s this horrible thing that’s coming?”
“You don’t need to worry,” Alma said, “let me worry about that.”
And then she left and the room went back to normal.
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The Dragon’s Teeth assault had completely stalled. For several hours, nothing they were doing was allowing to get much closer to the factory. But the longer I watched, the more convinced I was that they weren’t trying that hard. If they really had wanted to do us in, that airstrike would have hit the factory. Something was up.
“‘E was a fuckin’ idiot.” I turned around. Eliza was still curled up in a fetal position, hugging her knees, still crying, but a look of rage was across her face. “Fucker could ‘ave not done that. I didn’t ‘ave to kill ‘im.”
“If it makes you feel better,” I said, “technically, it was Doc who killed him.”
“What’d make me feel better,” snarled Eliza, “is if that fucker ‘adn’t tried to break in.” She added as an afterthought. “Besides, even Lupines can only take so much punishment. Odds are ‘e wouldn’t’a last the night without some serious ‘elp.”
We sat in silence for a while longer. Finally, Eliza asked, “So, ‘ow’re things goin’ out there?”
“Well,” I said, “the factory appears to be surrounded. There’s Dragon’s Teeth on all sides, and the buildings that didn’t get blown up seem to have snipers in them.” I watched as a soldier on the roof of the factory above us fell down, shot from above and behind. Several more soldiers, gangsters, and militia fell before they realized where it was coming from. “And they, or he, appears to be doing a really good job. The guns in the front of the factory are pretty much out. Also, for some reason, I don’t see any vehicles.”
“Really?” Eliza said suspiciously. “Why’s that?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “and the more I think about it, the more it bothers me. Most benign reason I can think of is that they’re sending troops somewhere else. Problem with that theory is that they’ve literally got millions of people in this area alone and I’ve got a feeling that they don’t have too many civilians to take care of.”
“Still think they’re gonna come in through the basement,” Eliza said, somewhat petulantly.
I considered that for a moment. “Shit, you’re right,” I said. “I just hope it isn’t too late.”
“No it isn’t,” Eliza said, pointing at some of the cameras that viewed the dark, empty construction area. Nothing was there, except for some construction supplies. “Nothin’ there ‘cept…”
“Eliza?” I asked as she trailed off. “Something wrong?”
“That bucket there,” she said. “It tips over one second, then the next…”
I followed her finger. A metal bucket full of what might have been paint kept tipping itself over every few seconds and spilling, then righting itself again. “We’ve been looped.” We said it at the same time.
“Everyone!” I said through the intercom, “they’re coming through the basement! They’re coming through the basement!” I then began the process of rebooting the security computer. “Why are they doing this?” I asked as I waited for the systems to power up again. “I mean, we haven’t been instantly splattered by an airstrike or artillery bombardment? Not that I’m complaining, though. It just seems like they could have ended it easily enough.”
“Well,” Eliza said, “they went to some right long lengths to get t’you didn’t they? Fuckin’ breakin’ inna an FBI buildin’ an’ tryin’ t’do a raid on Nowhere Island. Alma’s got a bit of an interest in you. I’d even wager that this would be the least risky operation to get you she’s carried out. Hell, there might ‘ave even been a few attempts to nab you that we don’t even know ‘bout ‘cause they got busted.”
I thought about that for a second. “Well,” I finally said, completely annoyed, “I now really fucking wish that I had some method of communicating with them. Could have possibly bought some fucking time.” I slammed the desk as hard as I could. “God fucking damn it! Agh!”
Then the monitors came back on and my swearing and inarticulate yelling was silenced. The new kind of Dragon’s Teeth was making a combined offensive throughout the facility with some familiar faces. Both the new Deets and the Picts were clearing rooms like the supernaturally-enhanced badasses they were, flash-bangs and frags causing enough distraction for the nimble cloned operators to burst in and shoot the tired defenders in the face with near-impunity.
Also, the Berserkers were back. They kicked through most walls like they were the Kool-Aid man, flung the defenders around like rag dolls, and used their captured machine guns like normal people used Uzis. A few even had bigger, thicker ballistic shields, adding to their seeming invulnerability and what appeared to be backpack-fed miniguns.
Most of the defenders fought bravely. The result was like a less-organized version of the opening of the first Star Wars movie, and they were the rebels fighting the storm troopers. The two biggest differences were that the Dragon’s Teeth had a lot better armor and that many of the defenders the Deets encountered were looking the other way. Only pockets of defenders were able to hold their ground for any length of time.
The result was pretty much a massacre. Every soldier or gangster who decided to fight back ended up dead, and the tide of black and grey armor slowly began moving up the floors. As I watched, my heart broke. I had done so many horrible things. I had lied. I had murdered. I had made it easier for others to murder. All in the name of stopping nebulous bad things. And now, despite everything I’d done, I was watching what was possibly the last group of organized resistance to the Dragon’s Teeth in America evaporating like morning dew. Like they’d never even existed.
I wanted to apologize, but the truth was, what was happening wasn’t even my fault. I’d done everything I could. This massacre would have happened without me. That was somehow worse. I never would have been in this situation if I didn’t think I could save the world.
Suddenly, I heard Jen’s voice. “Nathan, Eliza, we need to get you out of here,” she said.
I didn’t turn from the scenes of death that were occurring, but Eliza said, “I’m down. ‘Ow are we going to do that?” If I cared, I would have asked roughly the same thing in the exact same defeated, critical tone. Maybe with a different accent, I’d admit, but the meaning would be pretty similar.
“We… we…” Jen said, trying to find something to say.
“Y’can’t teleport anyone but yourself,” Eliza said in a dull, defeated voice, “we’ve got no helicopters, we’re surrounded, walled in, an’ the enemy’s cocked up any chance of goin’ out through a tunnel. I’d like to run. Really, I would. But we can’t.”
As Eliza was saying this, I noticed that Andrew and Lydia were leapfrogging down a corridor away from some Picts, firing Maccabees wildly. As soon as Eliza had said, “but we can’t,” a group of the new type of Dragon’s Teeth had turned a corridor and shot the two in the back. Jen must have seen it too, because I heard her gasp.
I turned around and saw that she was bleeding. The vest on top of her Oniko costume had been penetrated slightly, and she was down to only her Berettas. One of the glowing eyes of her mask had been knocked out and bits of shrapnel had cut her costume in the non-armored bits. She was leaning against the wall, possibly because of the cuts on her legs.
Yet she stood and ripped off her mask. “I,” she said, her face pale with pain and voice shaky but defiant, “am not leaving anyone. I’ve let too many people I love die. I will get you out of here. No more dead friends.”
“Nice sentiment and all luv,” Eliza said, forcing some of her humor back into her voice, “but we’re already dead. Jus’ walkin ‘round a bit mor’n usual, is all.”
“No,” Jen said, starting to cry, “there’s a way for you to get out, there has to be, there-”
“Jen,” I said, “Eliza’s right. Unless there’s some other Jumpers here I don’t know about, you’re the only one who can escape.” I took a deep breath. This next part was going to be hard. “Look, this has gone to hell. I got into this whole…” I wracked my brain for a second, trying to find a word to describe the hopeless horror of the situation, “mess to ‘save the world.’ Well, right now there’s only one person I can save.”
“Don’t you dare play hero on me,” Jen said. “I know what you are.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I was never a hero. I was kind of a self-important piece of shit. And I can’t really take off after you, because, well.” I gestured helplessly to my wheelchair. “So there’s no benefit to saving me. Or dying with me. I do have one realistic request.” I took a deep breath. “Run.”
“Wouldn’t you want to save Eliza?” Jen asked.
“‘E said reasonable,” Eliza said.
“Look,” I said, “I’ve saved nobody in this stupid war. So please, if only to serve my ego, run away. I don’t care if you run away and rejoin the fight five minutes later, or if you run so far away that the Dragon’s Teeth never find you. I just want to know that you last five minutes longer than I do.” Jen looked like she was about to argue for a second. “Jen,” I said as softly as I could due to the gunfire, “please. There’s nothing for you here and I’m tired of all this waste.”
“Fine.” Jen said, her voice cracking. “I’ll-I’ll go. I just…”
For a second, she looked like she was going to burst into tears. Then she jumped.
I almost burst into tears myself. I had lost one… well, maybe Jen wasn’t exactly a friend, but she had been a contact for a long time. I had known her since Freshman year at NIU and now she was gone. But she was alive. Hopefully for a long time.
“Well,” Eliza said, “d’you think we saved ‘er, or is she going to come back with the cavalry?”
“There is no cavalry,” I said.
Eliza nodded. “Point,” she conceded. She got up and gave me a hug. “But a girl can dream, can’t she?”
I returned the hug as best I could, despite the awkward angle and my wheelchair. “I honestly think everyone should dream. Especially in a situation like this, it’s probably healthier than the other option.” I patted the Maccabee on my lap.
“There’s a lot of options healthier’n blowin’ your own brains out,” Eliza said disapprovingly.
Then there was a knock on the door. From the intercom, a familiar voice said, “Mr. Jacobs. We’d like to have a conversation with you.”
I looked at the camera feed outside the security room. There stood ten Dragon’s Teeth Berserkers in full armor, all armed with either machineguns taken from dead US troops or ballistic shields and miniguns. Those were just the ones I could count.
“So Eliza,” I said, “do we want to die fighting or see if we can save a few more people?”
“See if we can save a few more people,” Eliza said with a shrug. “Why not? If whatever plan you have doesn’t work, there’s always the die fighting.”
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