“We’re leaving,” Joseph said as we walked into the house through the hole. I followed, not sure what I could do if one of those invisible fuckers attacked.
“Where are we going?” Jeong asked. It was honestly a reasonable question. If we went into the hills, the cloaking people could follow us. If we stole another boat, they could just wait in the hold and murder us at their leisure. Of course, they obviously didn’t want to kill us just yet.
“For the moment,” Joseph said, “anywhere but here. We head into the hills, then hope we lose them. After that, I want to take a look at this.” He held up the folder that our invisible friend had dropped down. “In the meantime, we need to leave.”
I had once heard that you shouldn’t ever run from something and instead always run to somewhere. This was definitely running away. Putting distance between us The Dragon’s Teeth was a good idea, but the hills were kind of foresty, which meant that these invisible units could climb the trees and ambush us from above. However, I didn’t want to bring it up, as the last time I had questioned our fearless leader’s orders, he had kind of freaked out.
Instead, I headed out with everyone else. As we began to head out, Kyle handed me my cPhone. “You dropped this,” he said. “Wouldn’t want to lose it.”
“Thanks,” I said.
We then moved out in a single-file line with uneven spacing. Again, John and I were near the back. Kyle, however, was also hanging back. “So,” he asked, “what do we think about our situation?”
“I don’t think we should be talking about this right now,” I said, “especially if this conversation going in the direction I think it’s going.”
“Definitely not around Joseph, right?” Kyle asked.
“Seriously,” I whispered, “we can’t… do that thing you suggested.”
“He might not give us a choice!” Kyle hissed back. “I’ve been keeping out of his way for two weeks, but he keeps coming after me. Trust me, it’s a very real possibility. Especially with the way you’ve been acting.”
Eventually, we came to a stop. “This is a good spot,” Joseph said. It wasn’t. We were in a clearing in the middle of the forest. If The Dragon’s Teeth were good climbers, they could easily climb to the top of the tree and drop down in the middle of our group. They could also come from literally any direction. Again, I said nothing.
Apparently, Joseph just wanted to get a good look at the folder. He set down his SCAR-H and removed the folder from the plastic bag. After looking at the contents for a bit, he said, “Jeong, can you read this?”
“Sure,” he said, after taking a look at the contents. “Looks like basic orders.” He read it in silence for a bit, then said, “Ok, the basic gist is that a small mechanized infantry unit was sent into the town because of weird Dragon’s Teeth activity. There was also some armor support. On the way over, there was a lot of activity from what the commander officer calls ‘Ninjas.’ I’m assuming that they’re the cloaking guys. Anyway, for a few days, everything’s normal, apart from Ninja sightings.”
“And then?” I asked.
“And then, probably the day our ride left port, they get word that a bunch of bases with weird nonsense names have fallen,” Jeong said. “Thirty minutes later, they hear gunfire from… oh, I’d say that direction and a radio message comes in saying that an enemy force is making a determined attack and is heading towards the town. The strange thing, and the commander makes a note of it, is that this unit that’s crumbling is one he didn’t know was in the area.”
“What does it say about the battle?” Joseph asked.
“I don’t know,” Jeong said. “He’s not making any sense. Apart from something about gas, he just kind of rambles like he’s describing a fever dream or hallucination. Then, judging by the ink stain, someone literally drags him away.”
“Could they be using some sort of hallucinogenic gas?” I asked. “The soldier we were talking to did seem a little… out of it.”
“Good thing we brought our rebreathers,” John said.
“Hopefully,” Sunny said, “our rebreathers can filter this gas out.” We all looked down at the ground. I don’t know about anyone else, but so far, getting hit by that gas did not seem fun. I wondered how long it lasted, or if you could ever really come back from something like that.
Suddenly, there was the sound of a twig breaking. Everyone stood up. Sunny, whose ears were the least damaged from the recent skirmish, pointed in the direction of the sound. Joseph nodded, and she began moving forwards. I was second.
We were heading down hill. As we did, I noticed that the sound of snapping twigs was slow and deliberate, almost as if someone was deliberately leading us in a certain direction. “Hey guys…” I began, trying to warn the rest of the party, but Joseph shushed me.
Before I could protest, a large metal object with lots of moving parts skittered past Sunny and through the bushes. After she collected herself, Sunny said, “That… was not North Korean.”
“I figured,” I said, “but what was it?”
“It looked…” Joseph said from behind me, “…it looked like a mechanical spider about the size of a Doberman.”
“Wait,” John said from somewhere near the back, “that can’t be right. Do you know how hard it is to make a vehicle that uses legs? There’s literally dozens of videos showing robots with multi-million dollar budgets falling flat on their faces.”
“Yeah, but compared to turning invisible, walking on six legs would be easy,” Sunny said as she scanned the forest.
“And besides,” I said, “this local supervillain back home, Nigeru, could do it. Not as well as The Dragon’s Teeth, but that spider car he made…”
“Yeah,” John said, “but Nigeru’s a fucking supervillain. And these guys…”
“Obviously have access to tech he couldn’t even dream of,” Joseph said. “We follow the little blighter and take it apart.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, “Because…”
“Are you questioning my orders?” Joseph asked.
“…This feels like a trap,” I finished. “But you can do what you want.”
Joseph stared at me for a moment. “We are going to follow the enemy. If you are too cowardly, you can stay behind.” He turned to Sunny. “You’re the tracker. Lead the way.”
We began following Sunny. The entire time, I was considering turning around and shooting Joseph. Especially since he was probably going to kill us all through incompetence. Eventually, we came to an area that, while not forested, was still pretty hilly. I also noticed that there was a strange smell nearby, like something burning.
I was several meters behind Sunny when she crested the hill. “This…” she said, “this is not good.”
We all hurried up to find out what she was talking about. On the top of the hill, someone had set up sandbags. The weaponry left behind indicated that they had been Korean. The bloodstains indicated that someone had killed them, then headed up the hill to drag their bodies away.
Below that terrifying scene was a valley, with a road running through it. We were by the side, and opposite us we could see other positions. At one end, two armored cars and a tank, all three Soviet or Chinese-made, had formed a roadblock. Several craters were spread out in front of the tank, and the tank itself was mostly melted. Disturbingly enough, the metal itself was burning. The two armored cars had been eliminated by more conventional means. One had been turned into Swiss cheese by gunfire, and the rear of the other resembled a blooming flower due to what I assumed to be cannon fire.
Strung out along the road was a convoy of vehicles that definitely weren’t North Korean. Most were jet black and completely disabled, but one of them seemed to be mostly intact, except for the fact that it would occasionally swap from forest camo to jet black. The vehicles seemed to trap light making it hard to make out any details, but it was clear that they were some sort of light APC with wheels and a cannon turret. They also had both a rear exit and sliding doors like my family’s minivan. I could see this because some had their rear doors open and one of the more damaged vehicles had both doors taken apart.
That vehicle in particular was interesting because something was writhing on it. In fact, it was the clang of the door closest to our position falling to the ground that attracted my attention, as well as the whine of power tools. As I watched, the other door fell as well. Eventually, something with multiple legs detached itself from the writhing black mask and began dragging the door to the rear of the strange convoy.
“Well,” I said, after a few minutes of watching the vehicle disintegrate, “this is… interesting.”
“Killer,” Joseph said, brushing past me, “you and Kyle stay up here. The rest of you, come with me. I want to find out what’s going on here.”
I began to protest, but instead said, “Yes, sir.”
Joseph looked at me, as if trying to catch some hint of resentment or sarcasm. He then left, motioning for everyone else to follow him. As the other four marched off, Kyle and I sat behind the sandbags.
“Man,” I asked, watching the rest of the team advance towards the convoy, “what the fuck is Joseph’s deal?”
“He’s one of the President’s personal picks,” Kyle said. “He tends to encourage a sense of self-importance and a love of status.”
“Why?” I asked. “If this is what it leads to, then that just seems… counter-productive.”
“Joseph’s actually pretty easy to manipulate,” Kyle said dryly, “providing you’re above him in rank. Which we’re not.”
“So,” I asked, “do all instructors have little networks, or is it just our beloved President?” I was half sarcastic. I expected that a professor would have something better to do than network with his or her students.
“Most of the smart ones,” Kyle said. “They know that they’re likely to get a dozen students who’re smarter than they could ever hope to be before they hit tenure. They’ve set it up so that the two most important faculty members in a student’s education are their recruiter and their academic advisor.”
“So we’re like some kind of trading card?” I asked.
“More like those virtual egg things, except more useful,” Kyle said, giving a casual shrug. “Students can always choose to switch advisors or not join in with a prof’s event. But yeah, we are kind of like that, except much more useful.”
Not sure what to do with this information, I scanned the surrounding area. I had plenty of questions. After all, this was an important facet of University life I had never known about. Finally, I said, “So, I guess Professor Krieger’s advisees don’t have many networking meetings?”
I was a weird case, apparently. Neither John nor I had been recruited by faculty. Instead, we had been approached by UNIX to go infiltrate NIU. However, we both had Karl Krieger, a demented lion-like man, as an advisor.
“You actually have weekly meetings,” Kyle said. “Since he was my recruiter and you’ve been avoiding him, he wanted me to pass on the message.” That was a fair assessment. Krieger might not be the scariest person I had ever encountered, but he was in the top five easily. Part of the reason for that was that he had implied he wanted to take down The President… and I believed he could.
“Couldn’t he tell me that himself?” I asked.
“He doesn’t want to scare you away,” Kyle said. “He wants you on a big project that you might not want to accept, you don’t have much love for him, plus he doesn’t have anything you want.” He paused. “Plus, because you’re such a wild card, he has to worry about what you’d do if you switched advisors.”
“Come on,” I said, “he’s not trying to avoid hurting my feelings. He’s not the type. His plans just got accelerated for some reason.”
Kyle shrugged. “You’d probably know more than me. Krieger usually likes to choose people that are either similar to him in some way or a complete underdog. That’s part of the reason why he pawned me off to Zemylachka.” Zemylachka was another extremely scary person as well as director of the Shadowhaven, a more spy-focused program back at NIU.
“How am I similar to Krieger?” I asked. Below, the rest of our group seemed to have decided to give the writhing APC a pass. I didn’t really blame them.
Kyle considered this. “Well…” he said, either trying to gauge my expression, avoid offending me, or both, “The only thing I can pin down is that you’re both… chaotic.”
I laughed. “And you aren’t just as unpredictable? Seriously, you’re kind of an enigma yourself.”
Kyle shook his head. “First off,” he said, “I said you were chaotic, not unpredictable. There’s a difference. Second, the reason you can’t predict me is because you don’t know me.”
We lapsed into silence, both of us shocked at the venom in Kyle’s words. Instead, we scanned the hills opposite us. Suddenly, I saw movement. I was just about to point it out to Kyle when all hell broke loose.