The rest of the trip home was pretty uneventful, except for the annoying transfer from our rescuer’s boats to the NIU helicopter. Let me tell you, it is annoying as hell trying to get one nine-year-old, one person on a stretcher and three commandos from off the deck of a modified patrol boat and onto a helicopter in the middle of the ocean. After that grueling ordeal, I watched the three heavily armed patrol boats speed off into the distance.
As I watched them go, I briefly wondered who they were. My guess, though, is that the information was need-to-know, and I didn’t need to know it. Plus, I didn’t really want to spend any time more thinking about this mission than I had to.
I’m not sure when I realized it, but by the time we had touched down at the NIU airport, I realized that several people I knew had died. I hadn’t known Jeong or Joseph before the mission, and I had some problems with Joseph, but I hadn’t wanted any of them to die… at least, by the second day.
Even though, I, personally, thought that we needed to find out what the Dragon’s Teeth were up to, I still wondered if the information we had gotten was worth the price. Two of our people had died. Then we had shot our way through what felt like an entire South Korean police force. That last bit has probably joined the long list of things keeping me up at night.
Eventually, we got back to NIU. There’s a reason NIU’s called Nowhere Island University. The L-shaped island is literally in the middle of nowhere, with a second, smaller, island in the “bay” formed by the prongs and a third one on the other side. Once upon a time, during WWII, someone had believed that it was worth setting up an air base there. Someone else had decided that it was worth invading, and as a result, hundreds of people had lost their lives there.
From what I could gather, the island’s only value now was how far out of the way it was. That didn’t mean people didn’t still die there. As the chopper passed over the main island’s joint, I noticed the Hell Semester barracks. The barracks, and Hell Semester, had an actual name, but I had never bothered to learn it. Barely a second later, I caught a glimpse of the clearing where a group of people, including me, had passed the Hell Semester “final.” Those three months had been some of the worst of my life at that point. Not only had I suffered the common Freshman year experience of not knowing anybody, but I had also made several enemies who literally tried to kill me, forced through a brutal training regimen, and put in a series of kill-or-die situations.
Still, considering where I had just been and the way my second semester had gone, it was good to be back. I remembered the bourbon I had one night at second semester and how I could actually sleep after a shot or two. That, plus a couple advils, sounded like an amazing idea.
When we landed, all of the recon team was hauled onto stretchers. Nari followed along as we were brought into a Bearcat ambulance. She seemed a little worried about getting into the large, black vehicle. My guess is that she had seen people go into black armored cars before, and she hadn’t seen them come back.
I, on the other hand, had taken a ride in one of Campus Security’s Bearbulances. I had been stabbed in the gut during Hell Semester and been set right next to someone who wasn’t as lucky as I had been. We had both survived, but my fellow classmate hadn’t gone back to Hell Semester. I wondered if she could come back.
Once we were finally in, doctors began working on Kyle and John. John had been in and out of consciousness throughout the entire trip. Sunny had been working on him with our rescuer’s medics, and between sleep deprivation and her cracked or broken ribs, she was pretty out of it herself.
“So,” one of the doctors in the Bearbulance said, detaching himself from Kyle, “Mr. Rockford’s going to survive, and, by some miracle, there’s a good chance Mr. Marshall will survive as well. Now we’ve just got to check you guys. If you would remove your front plates, we can conduct the battlefield ultrasound.”
“Do I need to take my shirt off?” I asked as Sunny and I removed the plates in our armor.
“Nope,” the guy said, as he fiddled with the stylus-like device connected to his tablet. “There’s been another upgrade.”
“Wait,” Nari said, suddenly perking up, “you can do ultrasound without having to apply gel? And even do it through cloth? How?”
The medic shrugged. “Don’t know. A group of our alums made it. I just thank God for it every time I use it.” He then began scanning me. After a while, he said, “Let me guess: you’re having trouble breathing and severe chest pains?” I nodded. The medic sighed. “Your ribs are severely cracked. Don’t walk or exert yourself for a month or three.”
He then did a similar scan of Sunny. “Can I see your plates?” he asked. We showed the bullet-riddled things to him. “Figured,” he said. “I did a tour in Iraq, made the mistake of retiring to Chicago, and started here literally the week before the Grenzefrontier attack. Am I always going to have to deal with gunshots?”
“Be careful what you wish for, man,” I said, leaning back. “Come Hell Semester, you’re gonna get it.” I closed my eyes, then a thought struck me. “Hey, you think I could keep this?” I asked, holding up my plate. “You know, like a souvenir?” I giggled manically. “Just a little something to say, ‘Hey, Nate, remember how you almost died in Korea investigating the Dragon’s Teeth?’”
“I’m sure,” the medic said, cutting me off before I could ramble on any further. “You’re going to have to stay awake for a bit longer, though. The President wants to debrief you.”
“John gets operated on first, right?”
One of the medics working on John laughed. “He’s not going to be at your interview. He’s going straight to the operating theater, then to ICU. Meanwhile, you four are going to get debriefed.”
This was… interesting news. First off, Nari was going to be with us, presumably so The President could figure out what to do with her. Second, he was in quite the hurry to find out what was going on in North Korea. I remembered that when he sent John and me on this mission, he had mentioned he had theories. Then that weird, cult-like group of Dragon’s Teeth had said that their creators had someone behind them. Considering NIU’s level of tech and the fact that they had been researching interdimensional travel, I was willing to bet that benefactor was our beloved President.
Eventually, we were brought to the school’s hospital. We were in a wing set up with several beds and two bathrooms. I had been in a similar room before, due to the whole stabbed in the gut thing. For all I knew, it might have been the same room.
“If you can stand,” one of the medics attending us said, “you might want to take a shower in the bathrooms and change into some hospital gowns. We got some in the bathrooms.”
“Let me guess,” I said, “you want us to smell nice before The President gets here.”
“There’s that,” he said as I got up, “and there’s the fact that showers make you feel better.”
After he left, Sunny and I proved him right. As the warm water poured over my burns and bruises, I sighed with pleasure. All the dust, dirt and sweat that had settled on me slowly flowed off. Yeah, it hurt like hell, but that really wasn’t much of a difference from normal and I had gotten to take my underwear off.
I got the pants and gown, savoring the sensation of clean clothes against my skin. I staggered out and flopped down on the farthest bed. Kyle, on the way to the shower, said, “You know, you could have taken the closest bed.”
I would have shrugged, but I was lying down and my chest was killing me. “I’ll leave that bed to one of you guys,” I said. “Meanwhile, you can go shower. I’m going to see if I can get the news.”
I flipped the TV on and began watching. Apparently, while we had been away, ISIS and the Grenzefrontier had both launched offensives. While the Grenzefrontier incursion in the US had been mopped up rather well, the offshoots in South America were starting to become a problem, and the German front had become a bloodbath. Meanwhile, ISIS had expanded from Syria and Iraq to Jordan. The Iraq situation was particularly horrendous as ISIS had somehow gotten ahold of tanks. Now, the only thing stopping ISIS from taking Baghdad was a coalition of Parahumans, local militia, and foreign auxiliaries. The government my country had spent eight expensive years installing was, apparently, useless.
In the midst of all this, people were starting to notice The Dragon’s Teeth. While two people were talking about all the horrible things ISIS and the Grenzefrontier were doing to the people in their territory, we were interrupted by a special report.
The feed instantly cut to a picture of the border between North and South Korea, the camera focused on the backs of South Korean soldiers aiming at the North side. It sort of reminded me of the opening scene from A New Hope when the Rebels are about to receive visitors. From the North Korean side, the sound of gunfire and explosions could be heard.
I turned around to see Nari looking over my shoulder intently. “It’s the Dragon’s Teeth, isn’t it?” she asked.
“We’ll see,” I said. “Something tells me we’re going to get confirmation.”
A few seconds later, I was proven right. From the North Korean side, a North Korean soldier ran out from the guardhouse waving a white sheet wrapped around a broom and shouting desperately.
“He’s saying he’s defecting,” Nari said. “He’s begging them to… oh no.” The feed, which had been HD, suddenly took a dip in quality, with weird, flickering white splotches scattered around the courtyard. But that wasn’t the reason why Nari had said “oh no.”
Three Dragon’s Teeth Berserkers had burst through the door, their huge guns slung over their shoulders and their armor pockmarked and scarred from the recent battle. The defecting North Korean turned around and put on a burst of speed, but two of the Berserkers easily tackled him. The defector briefly disappeared under a mass of armor, barely a centimeter from the border. Then, without a word, the Berserkers calmly stood up and dragged their captive back into the guard house. The captive, despite obviously having his nose broken, and his ribs broken as well, kicked and screamed all the way back.
As a Millennial, I understood for the first time what is was like for previous generations to watch as JFK’s head exploded or a plane to fly into the World Trade Center. I, and millions of others, were all watching with the same horror.
While we were watching slack-jawed, the third Berserker, towering over the Koreans from his over seven foot height, began speaking in Korean. His tone and body language was very respectful, most likely because his armor’s glowing eyes and the display of his raw power were intimidating enough. After he was done, he bowed and walked back into the guardhouse. The footage kept focus on the scene, as if the person controlling the stream was stunned.
“He says not to worry. The North Korean people are simply undergoing an internal struggle, and he requests that the people of the world respect North Korea’s sovereignty.”
Nari and I jumped a bit to see Sunny and Kyle in hospital gowns, both with grave faces staring intently at the screen. I had been so engrossed in the footage, I hadn’t heard them come out. “How much did you guys see?” I asked.
“Enough,” Kyle said darkly. “I hope you’re wrong about them getting worse, Killer.”
The news cut back to the two anchors. The male anchor, seemingly not knowing what to say, finally said, “That was live footage from the border between North and South Korea. For the past few months, we have been hearing rumors about a group called The Dragon’s Teeth operating within North Korea.”
“Past few months?” I muttered incredulously. “More like over a year. Do your job and tell us about this shit before a country falls next time.”
“Meanwhile,” the female anchor said with a robotic chipperness, “what would aliens think about humanity’s capacity for destruction? The question may be more relevant than you think as scientists from SETI come on to talk to us about potential alien sightings. More after these messages!”
As a happy add for soft drinks began to play, Nari said, “Now, I admit I am not qualified to talk about media, but is Western media always this… shallow?”
Sunny laughed. “You haven’t seen them talking about twerking. I think my first exposure to American cable news was when everyone was discussing Miley Cyrus twerking at the Grammys.”
Before Nari could ask what Miley Cyrus, the Grammys or twerking were, there was a knock at the door. “Hey,” The President’s voice came in, “you guys all decent in there?”
“We’re dressed,” I said, turning off the TV. “You can come in.”
The President walked in, still looking exactly like Robert Downey Jr. and sporting the exact same charisma. However, he was probably still capable of ordering or committing horrifying acts and still maintain his genial charisma. From my knowledge, under his regime, NIU had engaged in the yearly atrocity that was Hell Semester every year since its inception. He was one of most evil and dangerous people I had ever met.
“Man,” he said, sitting down on the bed opposite us, “you guys look like crap.” Noticing my frown and possibly misinterpreting it, he hastily added, “Still, from the sounds of things, you did more in two days than I expected you could do in a week.”
Suddenly I remembered something. “Hey, Kyle,” I said, “where are our cPhones?”
“Don’t worry,” The President said, “you gave them to the ranking crewman on the chopper that picked you up.” After I stared blankly at him for a few moments, he sighed and asked, “You wanna tell me what happened over there before you crash?”
We began to tell the story. Nari and I did most of the talking, with Sunny and Kyle only occasionally butting in. I noticed that The President just nodded and made noises of interest or comprehension.
Eventually, I got to the part of the story where we had encountered the Deets in the midst of their bizarre massacre/prayer session. “So,” I said, after a brief description, “something has been on my mind ever since.” I paused, waiting for someone to ask what it was. When no one asked, I continued, “Something I thought you’d be able to help us with, Mr. President. After all, when you commissioned John and me, you said you had a theory.”
“Ok,” The President said, straightening up, “what’s the problem?”
“In the prayer they said, The Dragon’s Teeth… priest, I guess, said something about how their creators had a master of their own.” As I said this, I watched for his reaction. “I just thought you might know something about this person. After all, we know that whoever created The Dragon’s Teeth are proficient in advanced robotics, cloning, and advanced energy sources, as well as possibly having the same teleporting technology as the Grenzefrontier. Some of the people who developed this stuff had to have come through Nowhere Island University at some point.”
The President shrugged. “I mean, yeah, it’s probable,” he said, “but the day you touched down in North Korea, a joint FBI/UNIX operation stopped someone who was about to turn the city of New Orleans into vampiric fish people. The guy behind that never went here.” He paused. “Though I kind of wish he had. We could use that kind of forward-thinking here.”
“Still,” Kyle said, surprising me, “someone should still check into it.”
“Don’t worry, I will,” The President said, “but I’ve seen this kind of thing play out. A lot. One monster creates another monster… then the second monster kills the first and gets busy creating a third. By the time we find the corpse of this benefactor, the Dragon’s Teeth will have already rebelled. Anyway, where were you?”
When we finally finished the story, The President clapped his hands together. “Well,” he said, “I’d say that you guys deserve bonuses. The only problem is, what are we going to do with Ms. Lee here?”
Sunny spoke up. “I talked with her. If you’re still looking for staff for next year, I can take a position and she can enroll in the school.”
The President considered this briefly. “Sure,” he said. “So long as she passes the Extraordinary Circumstances Entrance Examination. Which is a little hard for a five-year-old. If she can’t…”
“I’m nine,” Nari interrupted, rising to both the bait and the challenge. “And I will pass.”
“I’ll hold you to it,” The President, an amused smile playing across his lips. He got up. “Anyway,” he said, stretching a bit, “We’ve managed to get all you sophomores your rooms for next year and managed to wing it so that you can store your weapons here over the summer. If there’s anything else…”
“Actually,” I said, “there is.” Everyone turned to look at me. “I managed to take some Deet weaponry with me, and I have some plans for them. Do you mind if I keep them?”
The President smiled. “Well, when you put it like that, go nuts.” Without another word, he turned around and began to walk out.
As he did so, I closed my eyes. I’d have a few weeks of much-earned recuperation, but after that, I had a laundry list of things I needed to do. Preparing for the Dragon’s Teeth’s move, seeing what I could do about ISIS and the Grenzefrontier, seeing if working with UNIX was or wasn’t a lost cause, all while waiting for The President to slip up… next semester was going to be very interesting.