Track 25: Bad, Bad News

“You know,” John said, looking at the fountain that had once been Salim. “I actually don’t think we had that before.” He noticed the new lockers. “Or those lockers.” There was a pause. “Also… wasn’t the décor sort of Asian fusion and not kind of Middle Eastern?”

Mubashir, Bai, and I took a look around. “Uh, Moob,” I asked, “you really don’t remember…?” My mind blanked and my voice trailed off. I had no idea how to put what had just happened into words.

“Never mind that,” Bai said, “I don’t know how you got away from Salim, but unless you killed him, we need to get you out of here. And if you did…”

“So he did inject something into me,” Mubashir said. “I thought it had to be him. Or an NIU employee.” He then distractedly asked no one in particular, “Wonder what he gave me?”

“Well,” I said, “according to the man himself, about two hundred ccs of Heroin.”

Everyone turned to me. “Wait,” John spluttered, “That… that should’ve killed him! That should’ve killed a horse!”

“But is Salim… alive?” Bai asked. “I saw him dragging Mubashir into the student center while John and I were… a little busy.” She suddenly looked a little uncomfortable, then she shot John an annoyed look. “Sorry we’re so late by the way. Someone didn’t tell me you two were supposed to be meeting, so it took me a little while to put two and two together.”

“He told me not to tell you!” John protested.

“Guys,” I said before Bai could start yelling at me, “We’ve got bigger problems. Mubashir’s the Architect.” Bai and John froze, trying to comprehend what I just said. Bai reacted first, raising her Glock. “No no no no,” I said, grabbing her Glock by the frame. “That’s a bad idea.” Bai, in response, began to struggle with me to try and aim the gun at Moob. Bai’s gun went off in the struggle. Luckily, my grip on the pistol’s slide was tight enough to stop it from chambering another round.

“What’s going?” Mubashir asked over the sound of Bai’s grunts and my pleas to get her to stop and listen to reason. “What’s the Architect? Why am I not dead? Why’s Bai trying to kill me?” In response, John shrugged and made a noise to indicate he had no idea what the hell was going on.

In response, Bai said, “It means he’s going to kill everyone!” She paused for dramatic effect. “…And I’m the only one who can stop him.” She then kneed me in the balls. I let go of her pistol and doubled over.

After a brief pause, I held up the slide and barrel that had originally been on Bai’s gun. “Looking for this?” I wheezed. Fending off Bai’s sudden attempts to steal it, I said, “Dammitt, Bai, fucking listen to me!”

“Why are you doing this?” Bai asked as she tried to grab at the missing part of her gun. “You, of all people, should know what he’s capable of!”

“Salim already shot him!” I yelled.

Bai stopped trying to grab the slide. “He did?”

“Yes,” I said, straightening up. As I did, I noticed everyone was looking at me with varying degrees of confusion, shock, and fear. Also, Mubashir was slowly backing away. “He put a three-round burst into his skull. Then, while he was turning into a rather tasteful fountain, one of his friends put a few rounds into Moob’s chest!”

“So that’s why we have a fountain,” John said, breaking the understandable stunned silence that followed this statement. “Thanks, Moob.”

Mubashir sighed. “Well, at least someone’s happy about all this.” He paused, then suddenly yelled, “Why can’t I ever remember when this kind of thing happens?”

“Wait,” John said, “you’ve had… more than one incident where you have no idea where you are?”

“Yeah,” Mubashir said, “and it’ll be up to two hours later and I’ll be in some weird place with some out-of-place furniture that probably wasn’t there before. Or I’ll doze off for a minute or two and something will have changed slightly.”

“That’s… disturbing…” Bai said.

“Well,” I said, “if it makes you feel any better, you seem to… have a different personality when you’re doing this. It’s almost like you’re sleepwalking.”

“That… is even more disturbing,” Bai said.

“Agreed,” Mubashir said with a shudder. “How was that supposed to make me feel better?” I opened my mouth to think of an answer. Then I closed it again.

“Well,” Bai said, “I’m sorry, Mubashir, but you need to die.”

Before I could protest, Mubashir asked, “Do you have any suggestions? Because at this point, I’m out of ideas. I tried blowing myself up. I tried eating an AK round. I tried drowning, poison, defenestration, and electrocution. Hell, the first thing I tried after Al-Qaeda came to take me away was cutting my throat.” He shook his head. “At first, I thought Allah was just punishing me for my suicide. Now, I’m starting to wonder if he’s punishing me for telling Him I could do a better job.”

“Uh…” I said, “…Aaaanyway, how about we come up with a plan that doesn’t involve Mubashir dying because we like him and that might not be physically possible.”

“You realize,” Bai said, “he’s a time bomb at the moment. He has no idea how to control his powers.”

“Would your… organization be willing to teach him?” I asked.

Bai shook her head. “If they did, other organizations like the one Charlotte and Eliza have joined would be… displeased. If they found out, we would need his protection. Plus… while I would trust my elders with almost anything, this power is so great could corrupt anyone.”

“He made a fountain.” John said. “And two lockers. I’m pretty sure people could resist that level of unlimited power.”

“Yeah,” I said, “he’s prophesized to be about a third of how the world will end, and from what I’ve heard, I kind of think it’s true.”

“Wait…” Mubashir said, “I’m going to end the world?”

“Well,” Bai said, “you’ll be one of three forces.”

“And the prophecy was kind of vague on how fucked the world would be, right?” I said. “I mean, it didn’t specify whether it would be life as we know it changes fucked, Nuclear war except without nukes fucked, or the Earth physically does not exist anymore fucked. For all we know, you get that power under control, and humanity might end up surviving… right, Bai?”

“Or he could finish off the entire universe… But you are right, I suppose,” Bai said with a shrug. “Do you want to take that risk?”

“Well,” John said, “if what Moob said, it’s not like we have another choice. Problem is, this doesn’t seem like a good place to keep a person who can allegedly end the world.”

I shuddered, thinking of The President finding out how about Moob. On the one hand, he might have a better chance of killing Mubashir. Loathe as I was to kill someone who had helped me in cold blood, in Mubashir’s case, it might actually be for the best. Or, The President could find some way to gain control of Mubashir, reality-warping and all. That thought was enough to give me nightmares.

“And if I go to the CIA, I’ll run into a similar problem,” Mubashir said, obviously thinking along the same lines I was. “Shame. Apart from the people who run it, the US seems like a nice place to live.”

“Wait,” I said, “maybe the CIA won’t find out about this.” Everyone looked at me askance. “Think about it,” I said, a plan forming as I spoke, “the CIA mostly deals with other spies and terrorists. Bizarre shit like… whatever Moob is, is more a UNIX job. But since UNIX deliberately sold you out, it would seem they’re not speaking.”

Moob nodded. “I suppose…”

“And,” I continued, “whatever you are, I don’t think it’s something the CIA is looking for. If you contact them and say, ‘Hey, Mr. Handler, I think UNIX sold me out and the rest of Al-Qaeda is on to me,’ they’ll dump you into their version of the witness protection program. No one who knows you’re The Architect will know where you are and no one who knows where you are will even bother to look for you. I’m not going to say it’s perfect, but it could work.”

There was a pause where everyone else considered my idea. “Come on, guys,” I said, “You’ve got to have thought of something I’ve missed. There’s got to be something.”

“So…” John said, “what are we going to tell Charlotte and Eliza?”

“We tell them that Mubashir’s the Architect,” I said, “and we’ve decided the safest place for him to go would have to be someone who doesn’t know he’s The Architect. We just won’t tell them that he’ll be going somewhere courtesy of the CIA.”

“And that will work because…?” Bai asked.

“Well…” I thought about that for a second. “Charlotte thinks similarly to how you do in some ways, right? You both live and breathe this Final Prophecy stuff. If you’re going along with this, Charlotte might as well. And if Charlotte agrees, Eliza will too.”

Bai considered this. Finally, she said, “You’re right. It’s the best chance we’ve considered so far.” She collapsed onto the bench. “Ughhhh… why can’t anything be simple?”

Mubashir shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess it comes with thinking for yourself.”

“Well self-determination is overrated,” Bai said. “It was so much easier when the elders told Li and I what to do. No need to question, just doing what we were told.”

“You know,” John said, “I think even those guys aren’t all-knowing. I mean, if they thought they knew everything, why’d they send you here instead of training themselves.”

“That actually scares me quite a bit,” Bai said. “They’re supposed to be infallible, or at least Li and I always thought so.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” John said. “Or maybe they trust you two enough to compromise between their ways and… whatever method NIU is trying to teach us. Personally, I think it’s a pretty big vote of confidence.”

“You know, John,” Bai said, “you can almost always make me feel better. Thank you.”

“So are we doing this?” I asked. The answer was a unanimous yes.

Breaking the news to Charlotte and Eliza was a little trickier. Sitting in the couch across from us, Charlotte leaned forwards, resting her chin on her hands to study us. Eliza stood behind her, obviously feeling awkward. Of the people discussing this, only Mubashir was not present. He seemed to be afraid that one of us might steal him away, which was actually somewhat reasonable.

As Bai explained our reasoning, Charlotte’s frown grew deeper. Finally, she said, “So… I’m supposed to let you send off The Architect on his own, to a place known only to him… and he can’t even control his own powers? This seems like planting a landmine in the Buckingham Palace gardens in the hopes no one important will step on it.” She shook her head. “And what’s annoying is that you don’t trust me enough to tell me who’s taking him in.” She then had a horrible thought. “He does have a patron of some sort, no? He isn’t just going to wander the globe, hoping no one comes looking for him?”

“No,” I said. “He does have a patron, but…”

Bai cut me off. “I’m sorry Charlotte,” she said, “but I’m not sure we can even trust ourselves with this kind of… responsibility. I’m not even sure I could trust some of the people I respect the most with this. There is also the possibility that taking in The Architect could cause a war between several of our societies.” She made a bow while still seated. “Please forgive me.”

“Well,” Charlotte asked, “what’s to stop them from declaring war on whoever’s harboring Mubashir?” It was a good question.

“We aren’t going to tell them,” Bai said. “We’re going to leave Mubashir to his friends. No one will know The Architect has even been revealed.”

“Assuming I don’t tell on you.” Charlotte’s eyes narrowed. “You know, I would much rather he be with someone, anyone, learning to control his powers, rather than just waiting around hoping he doesn’t turn his neighbors into a cup of tea instead of fixing them one.”

“It seems to be a stress-related issue or physical defense mechanism,” I said. Personally, I didn’t like Bai’s insistence that her both own people and Charlotte’s be kept in the dark, but no plan would work without Bai’s consent.

Evidently Charlotte realized this as well. “Fine,” she said. “You have my word.” She was obviously lying.

Bai, probably picking up on that much more easily than I did, said, “I… appreciate your understanding. Thank you.” They stood up and shook hands. John, Eliza, and I breathed out sighs of relief. This was going to get interesting.


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Track 24: The Architect Revealed

I stared at the message for a moment. Mubashir wanted to meet me at the male locker rooms in the Sun Tzu student center. Tonight. What had he found that needed me to come so quickly? Why was he risking texting me?

Still, I had a day of classes. As usual, I was extremely distracted by current events. I had been ever since Washington had happened. Mubashir’s cryptic message wasn’t helping, but I was so off-task that the effect was probably negligible.  Or maybe it was able to finally focus me… but not on my studies.

It eventually came to me that there was something Mubashir had found out that he didn’t necessarily want to tell Bai. But if that was the case, what? I thought I made it clear that he could trust her. Did Mubashir have some reason not to? Was there something he wanted to keep among UNIX agents? Or maybe it wasn’t so friendly. If that was the case, I decided I’d bring John. After all, Mubashir hadn’t told me to come alone.

When John came back to the dorm, I told him about the message. John, upon hearing it, said, “So… you want me to go to a pool locker room… at midnight… because you think someone might try to get the drop on you.” He shook his head. “Nate… first off, it’s Moob. Second, if you’re so paranoid, don’t go.”

“But don’t you want to find out what he wants to tell us?” I asked. “Personally, I’m curious. Plus, this way I won’t accidentally wake you up when I come back.”

John shook his head. “No, I am not curious. Actually, I’m going to be… doing something with Bai.”

From the way he said that, it was pretty obvious what John was planning on doing. “Ok,” I said. “You’re doing it in her room, right?”

“Yeah,” John said. “Anyway, here’s hoping you don’t get into any trouble.”

Eventually, I found myself waiting for Mubashir in the appointed place. The men’s locker room for Sun Tzu’s athletic center was as deserted as you’d expect when I got there at eleven fifty. There was an odd design to it, probably to keep people from peeking in: there was a small sort of antechamber before the actual changing area. I was waiting in the main changing area, just pacing around.

And I spent a lot of time pacing around. Ten minutes after I had arrived, Mubashir still hadn’t gotten there. I checked my phone. 12:01. That wasn’t late. Then I paced some more. Then I checked my phone again. 12:13. Slightly annoyed by the fact that I hadn’t checked my phone a minute earlier, I continued pacing. At around twelve thirty, I was considering heading back.

I was by the wall where the exit to the antechamber, but at the opposite end when I was thinking this. Just as I had decided to head back to the dorm, I heard the door to the main hall open. After a pause, Mubashir stumbled through the archway and into the dressing room almost as if he had been flung. He landed on a bench, motionless.

I ran towards him, unthinking. What had happened? Had he been attacked? I bent down to examine his body. He was breathing, but unresponsive. On his neck was what appeared to be a recent needle puncture mark. Before I could process this, something metal slammed into the back of my head with a large amount of force.

For a few seconds (or maybe more, or maybe less,) all I could see was white. I could feel people dragging me away. I struggled ineffectually as my vision cleared and time started to pass as normal. However, I sensibly stopped when the barrel of a gun was jammed into my temple. A glance from my now mostly recovered vision revealed that my captors were two of the four remaining Al-Qaeda members. Mubashir was the third. I suddenly realized the reason Mubashir wanted to meet me: he didn’t. Someone, possibly one of the two people who had a death grip on my arm, had stolen his phone.

“You know,” a voice said from the archway to the antechamber, “you do seem to have a talent for making enemies, Jacobs.” There, leaning casually against the festively patterned tile wall, was Salim. The side of his face that had been scarred in a drone attack was facing me. In his hand, he held a silenced pistol. The magazine was dripping blood, and with a start, I realized the blood was mine.

“I’m not sure it’s the quantity that will do me in,” I said, glancing at the floor between where I was being held and where Mubashir lay, “but the quality.” There, lying hopelessly out of reach of both Mubashir and I, were my Berretta and my SIG. I looked at both my captors. They must have disarmed me as they had dragged me away.

“I must admit,” Salim said, as he slowly walked towards me, pausing to kick my weapons even further out of reach, “I did not expect you to die complimenting your killer, Killer.” He chuckled at his play on words, then continued, “You had quite the mouth on you when last we were in this situation.”

“I guess I learned my lesson,” I said, remembering how many times I had been stabbed for mouthing off. “But before I die, can I ask…”

“No,” Salim said, flicking the safety of his pistol off. He raised it to my heart, but was interrupted when we heard a moan.

Upon seeing Salim’s confused look, I said, “Ah. So you didn’t just want to knock him unconscious, did you?”

Salim, his face hardening, turned around. “No,” he said. “I gave him two hundred milliliters of heroin. He was supposed to die.” As he spoke, he walked to where he had left Mubashir.

As Salim stalked off to the ex-comrade he’d failed to poison, I was able to see Mubashir. He had managed to get into a sitting position, his face in his hands. A little later, he made a retching sound, and a mixture of blood and vomit poured from his mouth. I gagged in sympathy and, maybe I was imagining things, but I could feel the trigger of my captor’s gun pull back.

Mubashir looked up at Salim. “Let me guess,” he said, “Takeda and Brosnan told you, didn’t they?”

Suddenly, things began to make sense. Either Brosnan or Takeda had grown tired of me, but had failed to find an opportunity to do the deed themselves. Still, that left one question. “But why’d they rat you out?” I asked Moob. “I mean, I understand why they hate me, but…”

“If you really care that much,” Salim said bitterly, “apparently we’re not the only ones Mubashir has betrayed.” Mubashir, despite still seeming very ill, looked like he was about to correct it, then thought better. Salim continued. “I mean, the CIA still has him for the moment, but hey, who knows when he’ll stab them in the back?”

“Do you… do you want to know why I did it?” Mubashir asked. As he said this, he turned around to stare Salim directly in the face. He still looked like he was going to vomit blood again, but there was a note of pure hatred in his voice that I’d only heard once before.

“I don’t need to,” Salim said contemptuously. “How much did they offer you to betray your brother Muslims? Was it five figures? Six?”

Mubashir laughed hysterically. Salim dropped his gun and my captors nearly let me go. If they had, I wouldn’t have tried to escape. I was transfixed. Finally, Mubashir was able to control himself. “You think anyone would have to pay me to hurt you? You who dragged me away from my family? You who call all of Islam brother while you murder, maim, and rape them? You, who follow a book of peace and love by murdering children?” He smiled. “No. I sought them out, you semi-human pestilence.” He then spat at Salim.

Salim did not spend half a second to wipe off the bloody saliva. Instead he raised his pistol. Apparently, it was some kind of a machine  pistol (probably a Stetchin,) because there was a three-round instead of a single shot.

For a second, I thought time had completely and utterly frozen. Bits of Mubashir’s brain and skull hung seemingly suspended in mid-air. I could also see Salim’s expression slowly change to one of confusion. Then Salim raised his gun. Mubashir still remained sitting. Salim’s bullets and Mubashir’s expelled bits of head were still suspended in midair. Salim leaned around Mubashir’s head. When he saw the odd sight behind, Salim said something that, based on the context, was probably Arabic for What the hell…?

After considering the scene from a few angles, he began walking back towards me. “I do not know what is going on,” he said, clearly beyond disturbed, “but I think it is time to conclude our…” He stopped. He then tried to take a step, but for some reason it seemed that his feet had been stuck to the floor, as if by some kind of glue.

He tried again, his face now one of abject terror. He tried the other foot. The same thing happened. He then dropped his gun to pull at his leg. I suddenly noticed that his feet were changing color.

Then, from behind him, Mubashir turned to face us. As he did so, the ejected bone and gray matter began to fly back into their correct places and Mubashir began speaking. It sounded like Arabic to me, but the other people in the room who actually spoke it didn’t seem to want to engage him in conversation. The one who had put a gun to my head adjusted his aim and began firing at Mubashir. The first few shots hit Moob perfectly in the center mass leaving big red dots, but Mubashir didn’t seem to mind. The rest turned to sand mid-flight, reflecting beautifully in the locker room light.

Meanwhile, Salim was shrinking. Actually, shrinking was the wrong word. My next thought was that he was melting from the feet up. Then I realized the brown puddle he was forming wasn’t liquid, but stone. Salim realized this and began screaming. At the same time, whispering voices, the same ones I had heard at the beginning of the semester, began to start up. With a jolt, I realized that they sounded a lot like Moob’s voice.

All of this proved to be too overwhelming for my captors. Letting go of me, they edged out towards the locker room’s rear entrance. That one led directly into the pool that I had never used, despite having brought my swimsuit. When they were out of my sight and safely past Mubashir, they began running.

I was too transfixed on what was happening to Salim to notice. As he shrunk to thigh-height, his screams began to take on a gargling quality and water began to flow from his mouth. The more he shrunk, the stronger the flow. Eventually, I could see what he was becoming: a water fountain made out of some kind of yellowish-brown sandstone.

I was distracted from watching the sick transformation when Salim’s two friends ran back into the room. However, they came from the antechamber. They must have been looking over their shoulder, because they bounced off Mubashir. They looked up to see him staring down at them, still muttering to himself. The two sorry bastards sprang up and began to run in the opposite direction and began to run in place. The whole thing reminded me of a Scooby-Doo episode… until they started going backwards.

In horror, I watched as they were slowly dragged backwards. They then began to start changing as well. By the time they had cleared the bench Mubashir was standing in front of, they had become oddly stretched and starting to take on a rectangular shape. There were also square shapes on them that looked like doors and their skin was taking on a metallic sheen. They could still beg and scream. I know because they did.

I fell to my knees, hyperventilating. I couldn’t do anything. Even if I still had my guns, it wasn’t like I could stop Moob with them. I mean, two other people had already tried that and I couldn’t even say it had made him mad. Running also seemed to be completely pointless. After all, that was the first thing I had tried when he had done this to me.

Dammit, I thought to myself as I doubled over and sank to my knees, suffocating yourself isn’t going to solve anything. Since I didn’t have a paper bag, I used my hands to form a mask. I then tried to modulate my breathing, but still, it was hard. I felt myself slipping into unconsciousness, either from rapid breathing or the whack Salim had given me. It wasn’t until the screaming stopped that I was able to start to regain control myself. It was even longer until I felt comfortable standing up.

When I did, I saw that Salim was now finally a fountain. There was an octagonal pool, and in the center there was a square with a circle on top. Water was filling it up slowly. Mubashir was still standing near that bench where he had been tossed what seemed like a lifetime ago. He and the other voices had fallen silent, but he was still staring blankly off into space.

Keeping as much distance between the fountain that used to be Salim and myself, I edged closer to Mubashir. “Moob?” I asked cautiously. “You ok?” There was no response, but as I edged closer, I noticed we had a new row of lockers. That must have been where the other two Al-Qaeda guys went.

After I called his name a few times, Mubashir suddenly looked up. “Nate?” He asked, blinking dazedly. “What happened?” He paused, then saw what had once been Salim. “When did we get a fountain?”

I stared at him. I’m not sure if it was in horror, shock, or confusion. As I was struggling to sort that out and say what happened, I heard the door to the main hallway get kicked in. Bai and John then burst into the changing room, pistols drawn.

“Nathan!” Bai said, somewhat surprised. “You’re alive! I was sure Salim was going to kill you.” She then paused, then asked with a hint of jealousy, “Why do you have a fountain?”

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Track 23: Coming Together

The room turned into kind of a blur at that point. I had to sit down on one of the benches nearby in order to collect myself. Everyone was glued to the TV, most speculating on who had done this and why. Those questions would probably start running around in my head. But right now, I couldn’t really concentrate on anything.

“Well, this is bad,” Charlotte said. “The only way something can come out of this is if the US correctly identifies who did this.”

As she was saying this, my phone rang. Numbly, I took it out. “It’s Timothy,” I said, answering Eliza’s questioning look.

As soon as I pressed the button to receive the call, Tim breathlessly said, “…You there? Hey? Hey? Oh, you’re there! Are you seeing the news?”

“About the attack on DC?” I asked numbly.

“Yeah!” Timothy said. “This is perfect! If the Maccabee gets ready soon, we’re going to sell hundreds to the DC police alone! And think of the civilian market! The profits will be the stuff of legend!” I wanted to scream at him, to ask if he had any soul or if he had already sold it, but before I could collect myself enough to draw breath, he said, “I gotta tell Nari, May and Andy the good news.” Then he hung up.

“Well,” I said, “Timothy thinks he could make a profit, so there’s that.” I put my phone back in my pocket. “Eliza, Charlotte, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go vomit.” And with that, I walked off.

Needless to say, I couldn’t concentrate classes that day. Especially since when I finally snapped out of it the questions began to surface. For instance, who could pull off that kind of attack? And if they had those kinds of resources, why would they do that? If someone wanted to disrupt the US government, it would be much safer and infinitely more profitable to create a cable channel. While various super criminals and terrorists would sell what remained of their soul to do something like that, I kind of doubted the vast majority of them, even the well-known names, had the resources to pull it off. Most governments, even the ones that hated America, probably didn’t want to provoke the one country to ever drop the bomb on an enemy.

There was only one group I could think of: The Dragon’s Teeth. However, I wasn’t one hundred percent convinced by that line of thinking. First, I had only been able to look at this kind of thing for a little over a year. For all I knew (and despite my hopes,) there could be other groups similar in power and scope to The Dragon’s Teeth. Also, it didn’t seem like their style. Unless some kind of assault on the continental US was following, I doubted that they’d show their hand so early.

When I met up with Eliza and Charlotte at dinner, I mentioned this. Charlotte’s response was to say, “Well… do we really know that? After all, the only country they’ve invaded was North Korea. This might be a diversionary tactic.”

I sighed. “You’re right.” I laughed suddenly.

“What’s so funny?” I looked up. Bai had a tray of General Tso’s chicken, some rice, and some soda.

“Well,” I said, “if John, Nari and Sunny show up, we’ll be the foremost experts on The Dragon’s Teeth… outside of their creators, that is.”

Charlotte glowered. “I’m not sure how funny I find that.”

Eliza shrugged. “Better’n crying, innit?” She paused. “But ‘e might not necessarily be right…”

As she trailed off, Bai cut in. “Well,” she said, “the various government agencies know more. And if we don’t count a certain someone as one of the creators…” By “certain someone,” we all knew she was talking about the school’s President, “…or discount the chance he confided in others, there are potentially hundreds who are better informed than us. And that is if we discount the Teeth themselves.”

“Well,” Eliza said, “Those are possibilities, sure… but what about the Grenzefrontier?”

“They’ve been rumored to be running from The Dragon’s Teeth, yes,” Charlotte said, “but I fail to see how they’re more… shall we say accessible than the other sources mentioned?”

“Remember last semester?” Eliza said, her signature mischievous grin lighting up her face. “We seemed t’get a nice, big influx of the anachronistic bastards. Best part? They’re all nice and gift-wrapped. Anyone can apply to speak to one.”

“But…” Charlotte said warily, “President Newton-Howell forbade us from investigating…”

“…From the NIU end.” Eliza and I said this in unison. I reached over the table to hug Eliza. It was somewhat awkward, but she seemed to appreciate it. “Eliza, you’re a genius.”

“Oh, believe me, Nate,” she said smugly, “I bloody know.”

“How do we get in, though?” I wondered. “They probably don’t let just anyone in, do they? I mean, these guys are prisoners, aren’t they?”

“There’s a registry,” Eliza said. “An interested person or group need only write their name, reason for visiting, and student identification number. Then, they wait for approval.”

“So we put down the truth,” I said. “I mean, I think The President would prefer it if I dropped my Dragon’s Teeth investigation entirely, but I doubt he would believe it if I did. So I visibly go around talking to Nazi refugees, maybe that’ll get him to calm down.”

“It could work to divert suspicion,” Charlotte said. “But what would talking to them gain you, apart from that?”

“No way of knowing until we do it,” Eliza said.

With that, conversation turned to other things. After finishing eating, Eliza and I went to the sign-up station. We decided to have both of us go in to the interview. The reason we stated for the person signing us up was that there seemed to be preferences given to groups of two to four. That had been explained to us by the person on duty, in a rather guiding manner. We obliged him.

However, one of the other reasons was that I kind of wanted someone who both knew a bit about The Final Prophecy and was more able to maintain emotional detachment to be with me to cross-examine any person we met with. Talking about a group that had killed several people I had worked with to a person who had been trained to hate me for my (very loosely-followed) religion was somewhat likely to make me flip. Plus, Eliza had similar training to me and a different way of thinking. She might be able to spot something I hadn’t.

Still, according to the person who helped us sign up, the next opening was in January. That was two months away. A little annoying, but there was nothing about it I could do. The next step was to write down a few questions I’d want to ask.

The only problem was the waiting. Around two weeks later, it got even harder. Turning on the internet and looking at the news, I discovered that the Russian Dumat had just suffered a similar attack. Looking at it, I knew I needed to know more. Two attacks on the capitols of super powers in a single month? That couldn’t be a coincidence.

The only problem is, I had no idea who had done it, or even if these two attacks were by the same people. As soon as I could get an opportunity, I decided to call upon the mighty Google to aid me. For two hours between classes, I looked at every English-language article on the recent attacks.

When I did, I found to my surprise how few pieces of information there really were. Yes, there was the massive speculation by hundreds of confused voices, and for the most part they were amplified (or sometimes even started) by the mainstream media, but there seemed to not be a single useful government press release.

For instance, the American press releases had a lot of patriotic mumbo-jumbo, but it was very vague on any actual details. The number of shooters was confirmed to be greater than one, but the exact number was not mentioned. Secret Service, DC cops, FBI agents, and EMTs were injured and/or confirmed dead at the scene, but exact numbers were not mentioned. Congressmen who had been killed were mentioned, but I assumed that was because they needed to be. Also, there were definite rumors of gas being used, but no one could say which side had broke it out. To top it off, no official time line had been released. The same held true for the attack in Moscow, but since it was still ongoing at the time of my research, I couldn’t really find it suspicious.

Eventually, I finally found a message board that had what seemed to be an accurate timeline of the Washington attack. The website was also working on a similar timeline for the Moscow one, but that proclaimed “THIS EVENT IS ONGOING! As such, we cannot triage new information as effectively as possible. If we have made a mistake, please correct us in the comments below.”

Seeing as the Washington attack’s thread had less severe warnings, I decided to look at that one first. The first thing it had was “Mattias4994 begins live stream, shooters enter the Capitol building.” Since I had time, I clicked on it. It was a YouTube video. As the ad played, I checked the description. There were two paragraphs in what I thought was French and two in English. The English part said how the vlogger in question had started the livestream about his DC trip, then all hell broke loose. It also mentioned how if we wanted, we could see the entire thing on Periscope, and that other highlights could be found on his YouTube channel.

Shrugging, I pressed the skip button on his add. It then showed a cellphone recording of the entrance to the capitol building. Near the bottom of the steps were two DC cops, one with what I guessed was a Bennelli M4 shotgun. The other had an M-4 assault rifle. The pattern was repeated again near the top.

The scene continued like that for about two and a half minutes. The vlogger talked excitedly in French, tourists wandered by, and the DC cops did their best impersonation of Tower of London guards. Then, things got interesting.

All of a sudden, there were odd popping sound. Instantly, I pressed j on my keyboard. The video jumped back ten seconds. When I heard it for the second time, I confirmed it. Gunfire. The vlogger and a good chunk of the tourists didn’t recognize it, but the cops did. The two at the top of the stairs entered the building. The ones at the bottom, meanwhile, turned off their safeties.

Back in the real life, I heard my phone ring. I paused the video and took out my phone. It was Timothy. “Hey,” I said, “What’s up?”

“Got some urgent news,” he said, “might be good, might be bad. The FBI moved its trials up. We’re going to have to get there December fourth, and will be there until the sixteenth.”

“Am I going to have to be there?” I asked. “I’m not really the marketing guy…”

“I need you and Nari,” Tim said. “I need the designers to give technical details. Normally, I’d be completely confident in my speaking capabilities, but they might want to know some weird bit of technical arcana that I never even thought of. Plus… I don’t want to be the one to say Nari can’t help with the demonstrations.”

“Well,” I said, “I think I can get my gunsmithing teacher to count three weapons and two ammunition types to count as a final… I’ll see what I can do about the others.”

“Good,” Tim said. “Just so you know… we’re going to be meeting with other organizations. Anyway, see you soon.”

He hung up before I could get him to clarify. Telling myself that it had to be other law enforcement agencies wanting to buy some more robust weaponry and not an insane plan to arm… undesirables, I turned back to the video.

The person recording seemed somewhat curious as to what was happening. It was hard to tell as I didn’t speak French. Still, the gunfire had stopped. I wondered why, and the two cops outside were obviously wondering the same thing.

Then, a man with red hair and wearing a brown coat with oddly long sleeves walked by the vlogger. He made a beeline towards the two cops on the Capitol’s steps. When he got fairly close, one of the cops raised a hand and yelled at him to get back. In response, the red-headed man raised his arm and there was the sound of a pistol. The red-haired man switched his aim and fired again. Both the cops collapsed.

Then, as if the gunfire was a cue, a bunch of vans skidded to a halt in front of the building. I paused the video after they begun to disgorge their occupants. Since the vlogger had either regained use of his feet or became disappointingly sane and started to run, I saw that the men exiting were all armed and wearing ski masks. There was also something similar about them… something I couldn’t place.

However, before I could figure it out, my phone received a text. It was from Mubashir.

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Track 22:United Fist

“So they’re gone?” Eliza asked. “May, Andy and that Timothy chap?”

It was the first Thursday in November, and Charlotte and Eliza were walking with me to a class. “Well,” Charlotte said, “they were the kind of people who don’t really need this place. I must admit, I am quite happy I was able to meet them. May and Andy were quite lovely.” She sighed. “I must admit though, Mr. Cheung is a little too good at selling your items.”

Eliza giggled. “Alright, sis, ‘ow many guns did ‘e convince Father to purchase?”

Charlotte sighed. “The bodyguards are going to replace the surplus SA-80s with the assault rifles you’re making?”

“You mean he’s already sold the Macabee?” I asked. “We’ve only sent it to testing recently.” I sighed. “Nari’s been pretty busy. I have no idea how she does it, but she’s already got the blueprints for three underbarrel weapons.”

“Really?” Eliza asked. “I thought it was just two.”

“Well,” I said, “I suppose shortening the shotgun so it can fit on the Ballpeen might not count, but the internals are radically different.” I shook my head. “That girl just does not stop. And these are probably going to be the best of the bunch.”

“Well,” Eliza said, “You did promise May you’d take a break, didn’t you?” She gave me a threatening stare. “And you are keeping that promise, right, Nate?”

“I am,” I promised. And I was keeping the promise. It was kind of hard, since the nightmares were still very bad. Yet I was getting sleep now. It wasn’t much, but among the time spent alternately trying to go to sleep and fighting it, the dream flashbacks, and the accusatory voices blaming me for more misery and death than I was willing to take stock of, there were now patches of nothing. These, I have to admit, I was eternally grateful for.

I was considering explaining the situation when we walked into the building our classes were going to be in (none of us had the same one.) I decided against it. After all, the last time I had admitted something like that, I had broken down. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience. My parents and my psychologist had been kind, but I had hated admitting my problem even more than the problem itself.

Plus, Bai had seen us. “Ah,” she said, standing up from one of the chairs next to the door, “I’ve been waiting to talk with you.”

“What about?” Eliza asked with a mixture of dread and exasperation.

“Something that won’t end with Nate and I screaming at each other.” Bai sounded business-like as usual, but there seemed to be a bit of wry, self-deprecating undercurrent. I may have imagined it, but it was probably the closest to an apology I’d get from her. Bai then indicated the other people in the reception area/common room a slight nod. “It isn’t the kind of thing that’s their business, though. Do you have a few minutes? I have a few places to go where we won’t be overheard.”

Ignoring one of the reporters on the TV talking about how Russia was still trying to take a more active role in Germany’s fight against the Grenzefrontier and another talking about what appeared to be a Chinese crackdown on dissidents near the Korean border, I said, “That seems like a good idea. I’ve got thirty minutes.”

“Eliza and I only have ten,” Charlotte said. “But if it’s important…”

“It’s important and it may be quick,” Bai said. “You may want to bundle up.”

We, of course, hadn’t even been able to unzip our coats. But that didn’t stop us from following Bai out into the wind and snow. The day was the coldest one yet, but seeing as it was only November and considering what last year had been like, the weather would get much, much more arctic-like. It was still awful with the wind howling occasionally.

“Nathan,” Bai said casually, leading us into an alley, “I assumed you became a bartender to pick up some conversations?” The alley in question was a constant wind tunnel. The howling I was hearing probably was mostly coming from that one place.

“Yeah,” I said, mentally bracing myself for the windchill. I didn’t brace adequately, and the gale cut through my coat like shrapnel. “Shame that no one at The Drunken Mercenary trusts me with their deepest, darkest secrets.” It was true. I had heard a lot about people’s feelings about how shitty the drinks were, opinions on my (perceived) background and origin, and plenty of interpersonal tidbits that would only be worth the tip they left if they came from celebrities.

“That was the same reason I became a janitor,” Bai said. “Like you, I didn’t learn anything interesting. Or at least I thought so.” As we walked further into the artificial vortex, Bai raised her voice to be heard. “The janitors are somewhat fraternal, and pass down all the best spots to avoid being heard. Apparently, in winter, the wind in this particular alleyway disables all the microphones. There aren’t any windows to see us from, either. Now, we just need to find a place shielded from the outside view and face the wall. Then no one can hear us.”

As we got behind a dumpster, I reflected about the not-so-secret order of janitors. Maybe the tradition of passing down certain points of interest was unique to NIU, but something told me I should keep in mind that janitors and other maintenance workers knew more than people thought. If I ever needed to investigate or assault a place, I should probably speak with a custodian who worked there.

“Dear God,” Charlotte said, “this place is frigid!” Already, our faces had begun to turn red and puffy from the biting wind. Charlotte pulled her fashionable wool-lined leather trench coat closer to herself. She was the only one of us who hadn’t double-layered.

Bai, who was visibly shivering, said, “That is a downside, yes. Anyway, remember how we agreed to keep an eye on Mubashir Mubarak?”

“Yeah,” Eliza said, shooting Bai a side-long glance. “Did you confirm our theory ‘bout ‘im?”

“No,” Bai said, “but I decided to approach him as an intermediary between him and Nathan. I hope that is ok?” I nodded. “Good,” Bai said in acknowledgement. “Because he has something that he thought would interest you.”

“Is it about the IDRF?” I asked, suddenly curious. According to Alma Hebert, in 1985, the Nowhere Island University Interdimensional Research Facility had been boarded up and the people who had worked there had disappeared. She then had almost outright stated that the people who had vanished had something to do with The Dragon’s Teeth and their invasion with Korea. Apart from that, she had been annoyingly vague.

“Yes,” Bai said, somewhat surprised, “Mubashir found a file on it. But the file did not mention anything about The Dragon’s Teeth.”

“What did the file mention?” Charlotte asked. “It must have been something quite juicy for Mubashir to think it was worth our time.”

“Honestly,” Bai said, “both Mubashir and I think it is quite cryptic. We were not able to get a copy and I didn’t see it, and apparently much of it was heavily redacted. Yet it did reference some documents that might shed some light on the situation. But Mubashir was able to get the gist.”

“So?” Eliza asked. “Sounds like you’ve got a load of useless bollocks.”

“Or something you three are better able to guess than I am,” Bai said. “The document mentions two options: The Jason Project and United Fist. It didn’t say what they were…”

“Wait,” Charlotte asked, “did it say who was running United Fist? When was this document dated?”

Bai shrugged. “It didn’t say who proposed or ran United Fist, but the document did claim it was written in ‘97. Why?”

Charlotte now looked seriously worried. “Bai, Nathan, have either of you heard of a UNIX initiative called GNRF?”

Bai shook her head, but I said, “I think it stands for Global Nuclear Response Force? I heard about it when I was in second or third grade. UNIX was pushing America to join it, and my parents, despite being globalists, didn’t really want to join because of it. Does it really mean that UNIX could use the nukes of member nations?” I had remembered hearing that provision and thinking that couldn’t be real. I mean, how crazy would it be to give a foreign power only partially under your control access to your nukes?

“Yes,” Charlotte said. “It really does. Britain was the first nation to sign the accord. The idea is that if some device or natural anomaly gets too out of hand, UNIX can end it. The same year you yanks soundly rejected joining, Indian and Pakistani nukes ended a threat that I’m technically not supposed to know about. Today, Russia, China, the US, and North Korea are the only nations that haven’t agreed to the GNRF. The other five have to cover the entire globe themselves.” She paused. “If The President has some control over UNIX…”

She let the thought trail off. In my mind, visions of The President typing in a few characters onto his computer and locking out five countries from their own nuclear arsenals filled me with reasonable dread. I could tell that everyone else there was thinking it as well.

“Ah,” Bai said eventually. “I see. That could be… interesting.” The way she said made me think of the Chinese curse May you live in interesting times. “Do any of you know what The Jason Project is?”

Charlotte shook her head. “I haven’t the foggiest.”

“Actually,” I said, “in Greek mythology, wasn’t it Jason who raised an army…”

“…By burying the teeth of a dragon in the ground!” Charlotte said. “Nathan, if what you are suggesting is correct, then these Jason Project fellows are quite well read.”

“Mubashir managed to write down some notes after he saw the document,” Bai said. “He said the person writing the report’s main concern about The Jason Project was they had ‘command issues,’ and seemed worried about revolt. Their reason is that a test subject had hijacked whatever The Jason Project had been working on and caused a revolt.” She paused. “I think that if we want to know about The Lord of Death or this Goddess the Dragon’s Teeth worship, we should make an effort to find out about this first revolt.”

“I would also like to find out about Newton-Howell’s connection to UNIX,” Charlotte said. “My father’s organization works quite closely with them…”

“‘E doesn’t trust most of ‘em farther than ‘e can throw ‘em,” Eliza remarked. “I like the sound of a few of their people, but father makes the rest sound like the shiftiest lot you can find.”

“Well,” I said, “unless anyone has something to add, I think we can go back inside before we freeze to death.”

“There isn’t anything,” Bai said. “Let’s go.” Something told me that, despite choosing the location, she was just as anxious as I was to get out of there. It was probably her visible shivering that made me think that. “I’ll be heading off to my class.”

“If you see Mubashir,” I said, “tell him be careful. The President basically threatened me when I pushed him to investigate The Dragon’s Teeth at NIU.”

Bai may have said something, but in her hurry to get out, she didn’t fully turn to face me. Also, the wind in the alley picked up, drowning her voice completely. We waited for a few seconds after she disappeared, then we began walking back to the class.

“It was nice walking with you, Nathan,” Charlotte said, “but we really must be getting to… Nathan, what’s wrong?”

I had paused, halfway across the room to stare at the TVs. On them were pictures of tactical police and army units surrounding the capitol building in Washington, DC. Most of them were facing it. The banner for one agency proclaimed “Multiple shooters assault US Senate. More to follow.”

After a second of silence, Charlotte finally said, “Oh bloody hell.”

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The Observer

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Beaucoup asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s all over the news…”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Oh, really?” Jones said.

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Track 20: A New Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” May said, “focus.”

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

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

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


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Track 19: Brace Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What changed?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“The vast majority were worse than useless,” I said. “They panicked way too easily, they couldn’t tell a safety from a magazine catch, and until the very end, their leadership ranged from nonexistent to worse than useless.”

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

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

“What is it?” Mubashir asked.

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

“Are you ok?” Mubashir asked.

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

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

“What does he talk about?” I ask.

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

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

“Apart from suicide,” Mubashir said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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