This was bad. Joseph was our leader guy, yet he was pointing a gun at another member of our team. I reached for my M9. If Joseph didn’t point that gun somewhere else soon, I would shoot him. If he went so far as to fire, there was no way I’d let him live.
John, meanwhile, chose a more peaceful solution. “Jeeze, man,” he said, slowing the APC down, “I’ll stop. No need to freak out.”
“‘No need to freak out,’ huh?” Joseph asked. “We’re driving around in an enemy vehicle that probably has a dozen tracers and you be tellin’ me I shouldn’t freak out?” He was waving his gun around like a character in an action movie, not someone who had learned gun safety during Hell Semester. “Get out of the vehicle.”
John shrugged and opened the rear ramp. “Not a problem. Just so you know, there aren’t any doors in the cabin.”
Joseph nodded. He put his pistol back and grabbed his SCAR. “Whatever. Just get the fuck out.” He then stalked out of the APC.
We followed him out into the slowly fading day. We were now in a suburban area. It was a kind of weird area, at least for a New Englander like me. On either side were two-story buildings that were the kind you’d find in a city. However, just beyond the buildings and a few meters behind us the city-like area simply stopped and green fields began. I had rarely been anywhere where civilization just… ended.
Of course, the cheaply-made buildings seemed to have been hastily evacuated. There were clothes, toys, electronics, luggage, and various other items scattered about. A farm tractor had been tipped over in the middle of the road as well. In the distance, we could hear the sounds of a pitched battle. It was so intense it had begun to sound like one of those videos that plays certain sounds over and over again to form a song, with the chatter of automatic weapons being the rhythm, the thud of cannon fire being the bass, and the sound of larger explosions as the beat.
In short, it was the sort of situation silencers are actually good for. If I fired my G-3 and hostiles were just around the corner, there was a good chance they might think it was just more gunfire from deep within the heart of the city.
“All right,” Joseph said, “Let’s move out. Everyone, guns up.”
We began advancing into the city in a single-file line. After a few minutes, I noticed that Joseph had taken off his rebreather. My first thought was to just leave it alone. I didn’t want to start another fight with Joseph. Then I remembered that Joseph was slow to get his mask up, plus the dose he had gotten seemed to have seriously damaged his brain, perhaps permanently.
“Joseph?” I asked hesitantly. “Is there a particular reason you don’t have your mask on?”
Joseph halted and everyone took a deep breath. He turned to me, about to scream, then paused. His face slowly turned from one of rage to one of thoughtful contemplation. Finally, he said, “No reason.” He then pulled rebreather on and we continued on our way.
This was… disturbing to say the least. The one good thing I could think of that had come out of this was now Joseph would think before he did something to lower morale. On the other hand, as well as being increasingly volatile, he might hesitate at a key moment. That, somehow, was scarier than him flipping out and shooting one of us.
I was pondering these thoughts when we saw something dart into a building. Joseph motioned for us to stop. We had come to the first four-way intersection since we had started walking. Now, buildings were starting to get higher than two stories. Yet, the signs of the chaotic evacuation were now more intense.
The building that the shape had vanished into, a four-story building of some sort with a shop at the bottom, was in particularly bad shape. The display windows for the shop had been completely shattered, and the shelves inside had been almost completely looted. However, the shape hadn’t gone into the shop, but the entrance to the apartments or offices above.
Joseph signaled Jeong and Kyle to move to the corner and cover the streets to the left and right. He then ordered me across the street, then John, then Sunny. He then followed us. After the four of us were across, Joseph motioned Kyle and Jeong across as well.
When we were all across, Joseph motioned me towards the door. He wanted me on point as we breached. As our other squad mates pulled security, Joseph counted down from three. When he hit one, I burst inside.
What I found was a small hallway with an alcove for mail cubbies. The entirety of it was bare concrete and dimly lit. I moved to the end of the hall as quickly and quietly as I could, doing my best not to trip over the abandoned detritus left behind. As I did, I heard the telltale noises of the rest of the team follow me. At the end was a rickety staircase to my left. I quickly took it, making sure to avoid a few suitcases and loose items that had been abandoned.
I got to the second-floor landing. I looked back to Joseph for direction. He moved past me, aiming his SCAR-H up the stairs to the next level. “Search this floor,” he said quietly.
I nodded, then moved out onto the landing. There were six rooms, three on each side. “John, Sunny,” I said, “you take that side. Kyle and I will take the other. Jeong, cover us.”
Just as I was about to breach into the first room, through the sounds of the distant battle, I heard a relatively quiet thump. It definitely wasn’t an explosion, and it was so close I was pretty sure if I got inside the room, I’d figure out what caused it. To my chagrin, it took me a couple tries to kick the door down. When I got into the room, I saw that the room I was in was a small studio apartment that was completely full. There were two bunk beds and one double. There was barely room for the kitchen and table.
I quickly noticed that a window was opened. After confirming the room was clear, I moved over to it and looked out. In the distance, the sun was slowly setting, but the full effect was blocked by another building. Below me, there was a dumpster that had its lid somewhat bowed in.
“Well,” I said quietly, “it looks like our observer made his or her getaway.”
Kyle joined me at the window and followed my gaze. “Yeah,” he said, MP-7 aimed at the floor, “looks that way.”
The rest of the search went on like this. Eventually, we had cleared all the stories. I was impressed at how dirty, small, and densely populated the rooms in the building were, and a little unnerved by the fact that there was only one fire escape that only served the apartments on the opposite end of the stairwell.
Meeting back up, we reported our findings. The place had been evacuated in a big hurry, the electricity and water still worked, and apart from us, there was no sign of life either in here or in any of the surrounding buildings.
“Of course,” I said, “that doesn’t mean those invisible fuckers aren’t still watching our every move.” Ever since Hell Semester, I had been having issues with paranoia. Mostly because I had been doing spy work for UNIX, the international Parahuman law enforcement agency. It hadn’t helped that I had been right to be paranoid: the administration at NIU had known about me before I had even set foot on the island. Now, invisible jackasses could be watching my every move, even standing in the same room as me, and I wouldn’t even know it.
“Or not,” John said, “I mean, the energy required to turn someone invisible has got to be massive. We can’t be worth the cost of having those cloaker guys follow us 24/7.”
We stared at him for a bit. Then Jeong spoke up. “Listen,” he said, “if you’re going to try and reassure us, can you at least be better at it? Because you’ve probably jinxed it so that one is standing right in the center of this circle.”
“Actually,” I said, glad I could offer good news, “I saw one of them turn invisible. If you look closely, there’s this sort of shimmer… like a bubble where they’re supposed to be. You can’t see it from far off, but you can kind of see it from up close.”
Joseph nodded. “Good to know.” He paused. “Anyway… I think we should stop here for the night. This is a very defensible building, and I think that… I think that I need to rest.” I said nothing, but probably looked worried. The effects from whatever Joseph had taken were obviously still clouding his already questionable judgement. Joseph continued on, either not noticing the concerned looks everyone was giving him or doing a good job of pretending not to. “Normally, I’d say that our best bet to find out what’s going on would be to move during the night and use our goggles, but based on the sounds outside and the tech the Dragon’s Teeth have displayed so far, I would say that we have definitely lost that advantage. We’ll get some rest, and continue the mission in the morning.”
He smiled. “In the meantime, let’s have an actual meal.”
I suddenly realized that I hadn’t had anything to eat all day. “What are you planning?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “electricity works and the shades in that room are pretty thick.” He pointed to a room on a corner that only looked out onto an alleyway and other buildings. “We just pull the shades on that room, turn on its lights and its stove, and I cook up a little something while the rest of you stand guard.”
For the first time, I actually felt like Joseph was doing something right. Of course, that could have been my stomach and hatred of Power Sludge talking. Still, morale is a very real factor and hot meals and rest can do wonders for performance.
It took a while, but after roughly an hour and a half of watching the sun set and listening to the sounds of fighting, Joseph called us in to dinner. As we took our seats on the various beds, Jeong remarked, “You know, I think it was a good idea to call it a night. The fighting actually seems to be getting worse.”
“More importantly,” John said, “it isn’t getting closer. I think we’re going to have a nice night.” I, being much more pessimistic, knocked on wood when John said that. John shot me an annoyed look. “Really, Nate?” he asked.
Ignoring him, I took a sip of the soup. “Hey, Joseph,” I said, “this stuff’s actually pretty good. What is it?”
“Beef and onion soup, mon,” Joseph said. “It gets even better if I add some pepper and onion salt. It isn’t really a traditional dish, just something I made because I was messing around one day.”
“Yeah,” Sunny said, “Seniors get kitchens in their rooms. Perk of surviving this school for four years.”
“So you guys graduated?” John asked. “Any tips or tricks for us recent fresh meat?”
The seniors laughed. “Stay in school,” Jeong said. “Every year, the classes get more and more fun. Of course, they also get harder.”
“So, it’s like a videogame?” I asked.
“Exactly!” Jeong said.
“More than you know,” Kyle added. “I heard from an engi… er, someone from the engineering school, that they’re going to make the kill house courses more realistic.”
“Oh yeah,” Sunny said, “you’re one of the first legacy students, aren’t you?”
Kyle nodded. “Gramps taught at NIU,” he said, somewhat noncommittally. “There are some benefits, as well as some downsides.”
“Like gene therapy?” Sunny asked excitedly. “I mean, I’m fine with my body, but I have to admit, that was a really cool process you…”
“Please,” Kyle said, “can we talk about something else? I don’t like talking about that part of my life.”
Sunny blushed and nodded vigorously. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized. “I wasn’t thinking.”
Now I was intrigued. Kyle obviously had some sort of secret. Both Sunny and May Riley knew it, and Sunny had just hinted that it had something to do with NIU’s advanced medicine. If it was a disease, it would have to be a pretty embarrassing one, as Kyle didn’t like talking about it. Then I remembered something.
A little after we had come back from Christmas vacation, I had overheard a conversation between Kyle and Richard, another student NIU had recruited to feed the Grenzefrontier misleading information. In that conversation, Richard had deliberately called Kyle “Karen.” Could Kyle be trans?
I obviously couldn’t ask him. That would be even more awkward than asking someone if they were gay. That’s when I remembered how one of my friends back at college, an aspiring hit man named Cross Castellan, had been drunkenly feeling up John and another friend dragging his wasted ass to our dorm after Hell Semester ended. The next morning, he had been more than a little anxious to spend time with Doc, the Found Boys’ sarcastic medic.
Meanwhile, the conversation was sort of dying down. The talk became less and less substantial, until we were just talking about the weather. Finally, I asked, “So, who’s taking first watch? Because I’d be up for it.”
“You took first watch last night,” Joseph said. “Take some rest. Jeong and I got a full night’s sleep last night. We’ll take first watch and wake you and Kyle up for second. Does that sound fair?”
Jeong nodded. “I like that plan. Gives us a chance to catch up.”
“Thanks, man,” I said, realizing that this was his way of making up for today. “Really appreciate it.” Now, I was starting to actually be thankful that Joseph had been gassed. If he hadn’t been gassed, he wouldn’t be thinking as hard on the consequences of his actions, and he’d continue doing petty shit in a combat situation. Now, he was considering the consequences of his actions, trying to salvage the mission.
Between that, the hot meal, and the realization that the Dragon’s Teeth tech had to have some limits, I was feeling pretty good. Things were really starting to turn around.