John and I had first shift, with John at the wheel. The rest of the group had gone down below to sleep. For a while, we were quite silent. Then John asked, “So, what do you think is going on there? I mean, how are these Dragon’s Teeth guys blocking satellite images? How are they fighting a multi-million man army in secret?”
“Honestly?” I said, scanning the horizon, “I don’t know the answer to the first question. Not a clue. But as for the whole being kept secret thing? North Korea is very insular, and both the current Glorious Leader and the Dragon’s Teeth seem to agree that they don’t want any interlopers coming in.”
“But why North Korea?” John asked. “Seriously, it doesn’t make sense. What’s there?”
I considered it carefully. “I don’t really know. Maybe they want some place to test out their tactics in secret before going up against someone bigger.”
“Do you…” John began, “do you think they might go up against everyone at once?”
I laughed. “That’d be insane!” I said. “I mean, what kind of army could go up against all the nukes, Parahumans, and mad scientists in the world? It would have to have…”
I stopped. Bai’s mention of them having weaponry far beyond anything anyone else possessed came back to me.
“Y’know,” John said, “I’m honestly kind of afraid Bai’s right. If she is…”
“The prophecy she’s talking about… it’s kind of vague on whether or not the world is fucked or if we can truly save it,” I said. “Besides, it’s a prophecy. There seems to be no basis in anything scientific, except for the fact that a bunch of people hundreds of years ago all had the same dream.”
John nodded. “Yeah…” he said. “Anyway, there’s actually some good news! Or, well, at least, interesting news.”
“Really?” I asked “What happened?”
“You know that signal that SETI picked up in the 1980s?” John asked. I nodded, knowing about it only vaguely. “Well,” John continued excitedly, “a scientist decided that it might not be language but a machine code. It turns out that it is sort of this cool combination of AI and emergency beacon. What it does when installed on a machine is it looks for text editors and generates coordinates. It also tries to translate to the user’s native language.”
“This guy…” I said, somewhat hesitantly, “this guy didn’t give it access to the internet, right?”
“No,” John said, “but it seems to want that. The scientist seems to think it’s some kind of distress beacon. Another cool thing, which people think might be related, is that there seems to be something coming from the same direction as this signal, possibly a spacecraft. It should arrive in less than five years.”
Have you ever had one of those moments when you remember something, but just as you’re about to say it, you forget? That happened to me. John, looking at me curiously, asked, “Nate? You ok?”
“What you said,” I said, “reminded me of something…I forget what it was. But whatever it is, it made me think that maybe we should be worried about these aliens.”
“Makes sense,” John said. “But we can always hope, right?” We spent the rest of our shift talking before Kyle came up.
“Hey,” I asked, “you coming up to relieve us?”
“I’m five minutes early,” he said. “I just… kind of wanted to talk.”
“Is it about…” I began.
Kyle cut me off bitterly. “Jared?” he asked. “Partly. President Newton-Howell countermanded Jared’s Do Not Resuscitate order and they brought him back.”
“Was he upset about being brought back?” John asked.
“Well,” Kyle said, “he, or what’s left of him, is upset about something. But according to most of the doctors, there’s no way that there’s any of his mind was left in that body. They’ve probably harvested his organs by now.”
“Well…” I said weakly, “at least he got his wish… eventually. I guess.” I shook my head. “I honestly can’t even imagine what that’s like. Except really sucky.”
“Yeah,” Kyle said, “but that’s… not the most important thing. I have to ask you guys a favor first.”
“Yeah, sure, man,” John began, “Any…”
“Wait,” I said, suddenly suspicious, “what kind of favor?” Something, maybe it was Kyle’s tone of voice, maybe it was a subtle change of posture, told me that this favor wasn’t benign.
Kyle laughed. “Richard had you pegged wrong. I’m hoping Joseph and that sadistic fucking spider back at school have you pegged wrong as well.”
John was caught off guard. “What’s going on? What spider?”
“By ‘spider,’” Kyle said, “I’m talking about our beloved President and founder. You see, they both think that you guys are loyal to the school’s existing structure. However, if it comes down to the wire…”
“If you’re talking about a mutiny in the middle of hostile territory,” I said neutrally, “that sounds like a really bad idea.” I tried to imply that once the mission was over and we were safely back at school, I’d be up for one.
Kyle laughed. “You don’t know Joseph that well, do you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” John asked. I admit, I was curious as well.
“You’ll see,” Kyle said, looking at his watch. “Anyway, Sunny should be coming up soon. That’s all you’re getting from me.”
There was a bump from the deck outside the cockpit. I turned around to see Sunny coming out of the hull. “Looks like she’s here,” Kyle said. I looked into his eyes. They were tired, and not from being up all night. Ironic, as the next words out of his mouth were, “Get some sleep. You’ll need it.”
We went back into the hold. There were a bunch of crates and some beds. Everyone else was sleeping on the beds, but I suddenly remembered the boy’s glare. Suddenly, those beds stopped looking comfortable. Instead of choosing one for myself, gripped with the weird belief that beds could be haunted by someone still living, I crawled into a small alcove of boxes, my G-3 still gripped tightly, and tried to fall asleep.
Surprisingly, sleep came easily to me. It was a very good one, and it was all too disappointing when Jeong began prodding me with a fishing pole to wake me up. “Hey, sleepy head,” he said. “We’re about to make landfall.”
I groaned and got up to follow him up to the deck. When I got up, I saw we were getting close to a bunch of grassy hills with very little beach. In the distance, I could hear (and more disturbingly feel) odd rumbles. “Is there some kind of artillery barrage going on?” I asked.
In response, Kyle just pointed to the northwest. I could see blinding flashes of light from beyond the hills. “Huh,” I said. “What do you think that is?”
“It could be some kind of plasma weapon,” Sunny said, cradling an AK and leaning against the boat’s cabin. “The only other kind of weapon that can make that flash is a nuclear bomb, and I don’t think anyone would use nukes like that.” She paused, then added, “By the way, you probably shouldn’t look at those flashes too much.”
I nodded, and looked away from the flashes. “So,” I asked, “where’s our LZ?”
“We’re actually about five minutes away,” Jeong said. “There’s this fishing village I grew up in. We’re going to send in the drone first.” I then noticed that he was bent over something. “Ok, Drone’s ready, Sunny.”
“Got it,” Sunny said, pulling out her cPhone, a highly advanced cell phone issued to all NIU students. She began tapping at the screen. “Huh,” she said, “GPS is still active. I wonder why the satellites aren’t showing footage.” After she said that, a quadracopter took off like a rocket inches in front of Jeong’s face.
“Damn!” Jeong said, “Cutting it a little close, huh, Sunny?”
“Sorry,” she said, still looking at the phone. “Anyway, it should establish orbit above target site right… about… now. Ok, feed’s coming in clear. Patching you guys through now.”
We all took out our cPhones out and opened the incoming feed. The quadracopter was moving in a slow circle around a small fishing village. However, there were obvious signs of fighting. From the landward side down to the docks, a variety of vehicles had been left smashed or abandoned in the road along the main road. There were mostly jeep-like vehicles and civilian cars arranged in hasty barricades, but there was also either a tank or armored car near a large warehouse by the dock.
“Hey, Sunny,” I said, suddenly interested, “can we get a close-up of that tank? There’s something weird about it.”
“What part?” She asked.
“Front,” I said. “Maybe it’s just me, but it looks… melted.”
“We can do that later,” Joseph said. “First, we need to scan for targets.”
“You mean survivors?” Kyle asked.
“You be goin’ soft, mon?” Joseph asked. He was talking casually, but there was a threatening undercurrent to his voice. “I thought you got that gender thing all sorted.”
“No,” Kyle said, “I’m just remembering that our job is to ask questions. Not to shoot. But if you want to go off mission, who am I to stop you?” He was doing his best to sound neutral, but I noticed that underneath his usual tiredness was anger. Not annoyance. Anger.
There was a pause. Everyone watched with bated breath. “Listen,” I said. “We’ve got a lot of time, right? We can afford to do things slow and steady. We figure out as much as we can, then we play it by ear from there. Sound cool?”
Joseph nodded. “Alright, Killer. We do a quick scan, then play it by ear.”
The drone did a quick scan of the village. Eventually, it found heat signatures in several buildings that could be life. Strangely, it also showed an anomalously high temperature around most of the destroyed cars and a few buildings. After a few orbits, Joseph decided that the LZ was clear, then he ordered us to dock at the pier.
When we came in sight of the fishing village, we were shocked at how empty it was. The concrete buildings that faced the harbor were completely vacant. Most, however, were relatively undamaged. A few had taken some stray rounds or were weirdly melted, but most of the damage was to the cars that had been used as barricades. Judging by what I could see from the boat, the attackers had smashed their way down the central street, then expanded outwards. I wondered how quickly they had managed to do that, and how much warning the defenders had.
Despite the sunshine, the atmosphere as we docked was ominous. As we got closer, I could almost swear I saw something moving in one of the shop windows. However, before I could make out what it was, Joseph began briefing us.
“Alright,” he said quietly, obviously as spooked as I was, “John and I will stay on the dock. Sunny, Kyle, you two check the coastline. Killer, Jeong, you two get going down the central street. Maintain radio silence. If you want us to come at a leisurely pace, press the panic button three times. If you want everyone to retreat back to the boat, press it twice. If you require assistance immediately, press it once. Are we understood?”
We nodded. Silently, the four of us assigned to recon duty moved off the boat. When we got to the end of the pier, we split up into our groups of two. Moving at a crouch, Jeong and I moved slowly and steadily towards the tank.
When we got off the docks, Jeong whispered, “Is it just me, or have you been seeing movement, too?”
“When we docked…” I said, keeping my voice low. “There were some movement in one of the house windows but…”
“No one there,” Jeong murmured back. We paused when we got to the street. I noticed that the pavement itself probably hadn’t been that well maintained due to the grass growing between some of the cracks, but there were also bullet holes, blood stains and some weird burn marks. I took out my camera and began snapping photos.
The burn marks, especially, were interesting. It was almost as if something hot enough to boil the asphalt and concrete had hit the pavement. As if that wasn’t weird and disturbing enough, it looked like whatever had hit would sometimes fly off in a different direction, judging by the “tails” left by the craters. I also noticed that these scars were of varying size, but the trend was that they got bigger the further away from the water they got.
“What are you doing?” Jeong asked.
“Recording evidence,” I said. “This will make it easier to remember what happened and might give the techs back home something to work with. After all, it’s not like we can bring back bodies or samples of melted concrete.”
Jeong nodded. “Ok,” he said, “snap away. You don’t have your flash on, and the cameras are noiseless, so it shouldn’t give away our position.”
We then walked over to the tank, scanning for enemies or interesting sights. Finally, we got to the tank. Jeong and I walked around to the front of it. What we saw made me gape and Jeong utter something in Korean.
Something had caused half the front of the tank to melt, sagging down so that it was impossible to tell where the tank ended and the pavement began. The turret was also slightly melted, but on the other side. This caused the barrel of the main gun to droop down, despite the fact that the operator had aimed it as high up as it could go.
“What the hell did this?” I asked, stepping back to take a picture of the tank.
“Sunny said something about plasma weapons,” Jeong said in awe as he got out of my shot. “At this point, I’m inclined to agree. I can’t really think of anything else that’s hot enough to melt the armor of a T-62M like this.”
I took a few more pictures, trying to get good angles of the damage, record any identifying marks, and get some idea of the armor thickness. “Man,” I said, “I wish I could get some interior shots. You know, see what kind of internal damage this mystery weapon caused.”
“Not a problem,” Jeong said. Letting his machinegun be carried by its sling, he climbed up to the turret with remarkable agility for someone carrying almost half his bodyweight in kit. He then pulled out a lock picking kit from his pocket and began going to work on the tank’s hatch.
While he did that, I decided to put my phone away and monitor the street. Twice I thought I saw movement on the rooftops or heard the sound of footsteps, as well as the occasional whisper. Eventually, I decided that I was hearing them, whoever they were. They just had decided that they didn’t want to take us for some unfathomable reason. After all, there were only two of us. If they could do this to a tank, as well as however they were staying concealed, they most likely could take us down without our party noticing.
I was distracted by Jeong whispering, “Hey, Killer!” I turned around, somewhat startled. Jeong was still on top of the turret, a self-satisfied grin on his face. “I got the lock open. Wanna see what’s in this bad boy?”
I nodded and scrambled up the turret in front of the hatch Jeong had unlocked. When I was in position, he turned the handle with a metallic creak, then pulled it up.
The first thing I notice was the smell. The ignited gunpowder was honestly fine. However, the smell of burnt meat, metal and chemicals will give me nightmares for years to come. The smell was so bad, in fact, that Jeong had to close it for a bit so we could put on rebreathers.
He was able to open it on the second try. The rebreathers weren’t as effective as gas masks, but they were good against most non-biological based gasses, plus they didn’t need any external gas tanks. They did filter out most of the smell.
After the hatch was finally open, I looked inside. There, blown against the sides of the turret’s walls, were the charred remains of two North Korean soldiers. Apparently, a few shells had exploded. Also, one of the soldiers had fused to the melted side of the tank. “Well,” I said, snapping a few pictures of the charred, bloody mess, “the Dragon’s Teeth throws a really crappy barbecue.”
Jeong took a look in. “I’d say it’s more like a bake sale. Plus, that poor guy looks like he was alive for a bit.” I followed his finger. On the non-melted side, there was a soldier I hadn’t seen who had been unlucky enough not to have been hit by an exploding shell. The second and third degree burns must have made him irrational with pain or fever because he had tried to claw his way out.
“Charming,” I said, snapping a photo of the grisly scene. “Anyway, since I kind of want to add a little variety to my nightmares tonight, let’s check out the warehouse.”
We jumped off the tank and headed to the warehouse door. “You know what’s weird?” Jeong asked as we headed over.
“What?” I said.
“There was obviously a huge fight,” he said, “or more likely a massacre… but there aren’t any bodies or small arms. Even the spent casings have been picked up.”
I shuddered at the thought. Maybe they were trying to identify the bodies… or maybe it was something worse. To distract myself, I looked at an interesting puncture near the door. It looked like a rod, as well as a tiny bit of blood and grey matter, had been jammed into the concrete at great speed. A small line of blood stained the concrete as opposed to the splatters I saw elsewhere.
The doors themselves were two large, thin metal doors that had been punctured with gunfire. Judging by the bullet holes, the gunfire had come from the outside and gone in. After taking some pictures, we headed inside. This led us to some sort of factory. Judging by the fact that there was a huge stack of cans at one end and that we were in a fishing village, this must have been some type of cannery. The machines had been silenced, but it seemed like they had been hard at work, indicating the attack had come suddenly. Above the machines were a series of catwalks and some offices.
There were also telltale signs that the battle had spilled inside here as well. Machines had been shot up, blood was smeared on various places, and this time whoever had been cleaning hadn’t bothered to pick up spent casings. Dried blood, gunpowder, and fish stained the air.
“Well,” I said, “this place looks like shit.”
“Probably wasn’t that nice to begin with,” Jeong said. There was a clanging sound from above us. Jeong sighed as he raised his PKM. “And there’s our invisible friends again.”
I was just about to put my phone away when it beeped. I took it out. “We’ve got other problems.” On the screen, the drone’s camera showed an approaching convoy of North Korean soldiers. Things were about to get interesting.