Track 18: The Safest Bet

The next thing I heard was the sound of several guns firing in unison. I noticed that they seemed to be firing in semi-automatic. The sound of bullets bouncing off the sides of the Charon came almost immediately.

Suddenly, the Charon’s cannon opened up. It was only a three-round burst, but the sounds of the shells hitting was like the wrath of God. “Ok,” Kyle said, obviously pleasantly surprised, “that’s working!”

“How much longer?” Joseph asked.

“The display says I have thirty-seven out of a hundred rounds remaining,” Kyle said. “There’s also rockets, but…”

“Less talk, more shooting,” Joseph said. “Keep them from rushing us, but use as little ammo as possible.”

“Yeah…” Kyle said, “I don’t think that’s going to be possible…” Still, he continued returning fire. After all, it was something to do. Meanwhile, the rest of us had the option of panic or shut up.

Nari, for instance, was cursing in Korean. “What is it?” I asked.

“This… this…” She then said something disparaging in Korean as she closed the maintenance hatch, “…is designed by a complete moron. I can’t believe how much effort it took to fix this…”

“Speaking of fixing this thing…” John said. Suddenly, we began to slide back as the Charon as it accelerated. A few bullets hit the rear ramp, causing some dangerous-looking dents, but apart from that, the shooting stopped. After a minute or two of insane acceleration, we broke out into relieved laughter.

Nari, however, didn’t seem too happy. “That,” she said, “was too easy. They’re letting us go.”

“Of course they’re letting us go,” John said. “One of them had a beautiful shot on the windscreen. He could have attempted to shatter it. Or they could have tried to shoot out the tires. Or they could have used that bouncy ball of death to insta-bake us.” He paused. “Damn, that thing was nasty. My vision is still a little blurry from that.”

“Could be worse,” I said. “But the question remains, why are they letting us go? Does it have something to do with their little rebellion? And if so, what does letting us go accomplish?”

“Another question,” Kyle said, “who did their ‘creators’ use to work for?”

I was about to say something. It was a hunch, but I remembered how before he sent us on this mission, NIU’s President and Founder had said he had his own theories. Something told me that, if he wasn’t behind this, he knew who was. However, while he may have changed a lot on this mission, Joseph was still the President’s man.

Luckily, Nari cut in. “You actually make some good points. I never expected soldiers to be intelligent.”

Sunny laughed weakly and descended back into coughing. “…Can’t… be that smart,” she said weakly. “We’re… here, aren’t we?”

“To be fair,” I said, “we had to be very smart to make all the terrible decisions that brought us here. Otherwise, we’d have never left home.”

The joke got the team to laugh. “…Please…” Sunny said, “…no jokes… Laughing hurts… right now.”

Nari, meanwhile, wasn’t laughing. “I am not sure I understand,” she said.

“You think we should tell her?” I asked.

Joseph shrugged. “Sure,” he said. “We’re going to recruit her anyway. Besides, what can she do with this information? Her government has bigger problems and I’m not sure the Deets give a shit.” He then turned to Nari, and said, “So, what have you heard about Nowhere Island University?”

Nari recoiled. “I heard…” she said, “that it is one of the most dangerous and corrupt places in the world.”

“Accurate, I guess,” Joseph said. “In some ways, it is a little like your own country. In others, it is a little like the Wild West.” Nari nodded, but she seemed a little confused by the Wild West reference. “The thing is, everyone, except maybe people in Hell Semester, can leave.”

“And why,” Nari asked, “do people want to come?”

Kyle shrugged. “It depends. Some people want to come because they can make money or gain power. Others come because they’ve got some ideological or personal reason. A few come because NIU’s got all the best toys, but I’m pretty sure most come for a mix.”

“What do you mean by ‘toys?’” Nari asked.

“Students get to work on various projects,” I said. “The reason Joseph’s walking right now is because one of my friends at the medical school developed this medical glue that holds you together. She also developed that sludge we fed you for breakfast.”

“I assume it has some other benefit other than building character,” Nari said blandly.

“It makes you able to recover from moving for long periods of times,” I said. “May explained it to me once, but it went in one ear and out the other.”

“Wait,” Nari said, “a student made something like that?” She looked like she was remembering something or considering an idea. “Is this sort of thing… encouraged?”

“Hell,” Kyle said, “it’s actually required. You either need to get an on-campus job or start innovating.”

“And…” Nari said, a barely suppressed note of hope and longing in her voice, “I could make anything I wanted?”

“Well,” John said, “You’d have to have graduated high school, but…”

“I was starting what an American would call my senior year,” Nari said, somewhat smugly. “You probably have some sort of test that could confirm it.” She leaned back. “You know what? I’m tired of doing the same science fair projects and paint by numbers projects. ‘Nari, can you copy this low-end American car engine from the sixties?’ ‘Nari, can you guess how the Wright Brothers made their own plane?’ ‘Nari, can you make your radio again? We just want to make sure you can still do it.’ But you know what? I’m tired of reproducing other people’s inventions. I want to make my own thing.”

I watched her face harden as she remembered a bunch of slights, real and imagined. I was feeling rather good about this. Not only had we probably convinced her to come with us, which had probably saved her life, but I knew what buttons to push.

What buttons to push? I thought to myself. You’re supposed to be the good guy. Don’t think like that.

But, a more practical voice asked, how are you going to keep her away from the President? I considered this, and realized two things: first of all, I couldn’t. Second, it wouldn’t help her to do that. If she couldn’t recognize that the President was poison, then there wasn’t much I could do.

Instead, I just decided to open up the crate with the Deet weaponry and pulled out one of the rifles. Following the proper rules of gun safety, I pulled one of the lower charging handles, causing the other one to move back as well. It went back halfway, then jammed a quarter of the way down. I noticed that the slide didn’t open. I sighed and pulled back the top charging handle. This caused the top handle and the slide to pull back part of the way, revealing the chrome-colored bullet inside. Unfortunately, it too was stuck.

“What are you doing?” Nari asked.

“Trying to figure out how these Deet guns work,” I said. “I think I broke one. I pulled back the wrong lever and now the gun won’t cycle.”

“Is that what normally what happens with guns?” Nari asked curiously.

“No,” I said. “Even with guns hated for being unreliable should take more to break than this. Of course, this could be something that happens once every few thousand times. I’d have to open it up to be sure.”

“Can I watch?” Nari asked.

“Sure,” I said. Careful to keep my finger off the trigger and making sure to remove the magazine, I began the process of disassembling the rifle. I discovered that it was designed so that you had to remove the barrel and the grenade launcher in order to open it up. That wasn’t that hard, as the barrel was a quick-change affair and the grenade launcher slid off easily. Then, the upper receiver and barrel shroud were able to swing open, giving me access to the machined parts within.

“Well,” I said, looking at how the mechanism to cycle the bullet had completely jammed up, “that’s going to need a chisel to remove.”

“It looks like this kind of thing happens every time you pull the slide in the wrong order,” Nari said. “Do you think it was something the designers did on purpose to prevent captured weaponry?”

“Nah,” I said, “this honestly looks like bad design. The gun isn’t destroyed, but it would take a good two or three hours to fix it. That’s a big problem for someone who pulls the wrong lever in a panic.”

We spent the next while talking about how guns worked. We had given up on the first rifle and moved on to the other, with me making sure to take lots of pictures. I even decided to save a few of the bullets in my boot to have something to study when this was all over. Meanwhile, I had also put my G-3 into my pack.

It was quite a while, probably about late afternoon, when it happened. As we got in sight of the fishing village, the Charon was rocked by an explosion. It then sagged dangerously on one side and began to skid. John and Kyle were buckled in, and Joseph was hanging on to the handrail, so they were mostly fine. I, however, was slammed into the side of the vehicle.

If the angle at which I had been was slightly different, I would have snapped my neck and died instantly. Instead, all that happened was my head leaving a dent in the padded walls. That padding and my helmet wasn’t enough to stop my vision from going white for a split second, but it was better than nothing.

“Agh…” Joseph groaned as he got up from the floor, his hands a little scraped from hitting the floor. “Ok… is anyone more hurt than I am?”

“Well…” Sunny wheezed, “I’m not… more hurt than before…”

“We’re fine in the cockpit.” John said. He then asked, “We are both fine, right?” Kyle muttered something, and John said, “Yep, both right as rain!”

Nari stood up shakily. “I… am alright,” she said shakily. She turned around and pointed at me, letting me see that her face had been kind of torn up by the floor. I suddenly remembered that it was textured for better grip. “But,” she said, “he hit his head. We should…”

“I’m fine,” I said, standing up slowly and grabbing the Deet rifle. “If everyone else can walk, we can test for concussions later. This just smells like an ambush.”

“We could have just had a blowout or hit a mine the Koreans left,” John said. “I really think we should check you for a concussion.”

“Here’s what we’ll do,” Joseph said, after carefully considering what we had said for a second or two. “Sunny can check Killer for a concussion, Kyle can man the turret, and John, you and I can find out what the hell happened to our… Do you hear that?”

In the distance, there came the high-pitched whine of what sounded like a jet engine. “I thought you said the North Korean air force was eliminated, Nari,” I said. As I did, it suddenly passed over our heads.

“That doesn’t matter,” Kyle said. “They’re Deet. Judging by their size and the fact that we’re still here, they appear to be transports, and they’re landing in the forest behind us.”

“Get out of here,” Joseph said. “I’ll hold them off. Killer’s in charge.”

“But…” Sunny protested, fighting to get the words out.

“Damn it!” Joseph shouted, “There’s no time! Get the fuck out of here!”

As I lifted Sunny up, I said to Joseph, “If we make it to a boat, and they haven’t come yet, come and get to us, ok?”

“I will,” Joseph said, “now go!”

I dragged Sunny out one of the side doors. Kyle, Nari, and John exited the vehicle behind me. “Nari!” John called out, as the girl ran around to the side facing the forest, “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Checking the other side,” she said. “It looks like someone put a bomb in between the wheels and the detonation is what caused us to…”

“We don’t have time,” Kyle said. As he spoke, I could hear the sound of more jet engines coming towards us from far off. We began running towards the docks as fast as we could. Luckily, someone (or something) had cleared the way so we didn’t have to vault over the barricades that the defense had set up.

Still, we weren’t making progress fast enough. Already, the sound of our Charon’s cannon was disrupting the summer air, and the sound of three jets were now disturbingly close. Luckily, we had a head start. It wouldn’t do that much good against jets, but we needed all the help we could get.

“I’m sorry,” Nari said, “these are new! I didn’t know they had pla…”

She was cut off as the world exploded around us. Between the earth shaking, the large chunk of concrete that hit me in the head, and the shock of seeing the buildings on either side of me collapsing in balls of fire, I fell down.

As I struggled to my feet, John shouted something and pointed at some point in the sky to our rear-left. I turned, and saw a large black VTOL shaped like a stealth plane touching down. Kyle, meanwhile, was shooting at one to our rear-right. That explained the roaring sound that was drowning out everything and the explosions.

That still raised an important question: how the hell were we going to get out of this?


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