About five in the morning, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t checked to see if the Dragon’s Teeth weaponry was still in the place I left it. I got up, lifted the mattress… and quickly realized what had reminded me. Underneath the mattress, exactly where I had left them, were the two Deet guns (John’s name for the Dragon’s Teeth) I had collected.
The one that had been making it hard to sleep was the assault rifle the Deets used. It was a bullpup rifle with built-in grenade launcher that was extremely, aggressively square. Almost all the unnecessary edges and curves had been filed off. Running my hand along the foregrip, I could make out a serial number and the word “Pilum.”
There were a few exceptions to its bizarre squareness, the most egregious being the two charging handles on each side of the gun. Combined with the gun’s abnormally wide body (due to it taking quadrastacked magazines) and these charging handles had been poking me all night. I suddenly realized that I was feeling a little bit of extra pain today. Lifting up my shirt, I realized that I had accumulated several bruises from the charging handles poking me through the mattress. It was at that point that I decided I would not be copying this design.
Another thing that annoyed me about the design was that it had no provision for iron sights. When I had first salvaged one in the field, I had assumed they were reflex sights. Instead, it used some sort of scope that turned out to be a video camera. I discovered this because when I went to check the sights, it was completely blank. I leaned in closer to inspect them. Sure enough, there was a camera on the other end, as well as some buttons which I guessed controlled zeroing, zoom, or vision mode. Personally, I hadn’t used iron sights on a rifle ever since I… acquired my G-3 with its reflex sight and flip-up 3x scope. However, the suddenly very real fear of running out of batteries made me very glad that the G-3’s previous owner had never bothered to remove the iron sights.
Another interesting feature that might also be a potential bane of the gun was the feed system. It used forty, fifty, and sixty-round quadrastacked magazines, as well as hundred-round drum magazines that fed it what I guessed were either six or seven millimeter by forty or fifty millimeter caseless rounds. Even more interesting was that these magazines had some internal round-counting tech that connected to the gun’s onboard computer to give the operator an exact count of ammo. In theory, it sounded cool, but in practice, I could see it shorting out if it got wet.
The most damning flaw of this gun was the cocking mechanism. If it was made by a smart, sane person, there would only be two charging handles, one on each side so it could be used ambidextrously. However, the idiot who made this had made it with four. Half of them would cock the gun without moving the bolt back, maybe for fear of contaminants, or maybe just to show off that it used caseless ammo. The other half would also eject the round. This would be fine if pulling the first two handles while a bullet in the chamber didn’t cause the gun to become unusable until you brought it back to a machine shop. Since that bit of joy happened, it was officially the worst rifle in the modern world. I just hoped whoever designed the Deet’s rifle had repeated the magic elsewhere.
It had one good point: the barrel. When I had fired one of these rifles in combat (the same one that now lay on my bed, in fact,) it hadn’t even gotten slightly warm, despite having a hundred round drum get emptied via fully automatic fire. If the barrel had started overheating, I could have quickly swapped it out for a fresh one, thanks to a conveniently-placed handle. I also had salvaged what looked like a shorter barrel, a heavy, heat-resistant barrel, and a long, match-point barrel. All of these could be changed in about the time it took to change a magazine. That feature I’d steal.
The pistol, identified as a Sgian, used the same unfathomably stupid receiver for some reason. This, combined with the internal suppressor, made it weirdly tall. How anyone could hit the broad side of a barn with it was beyond me. This, I believed, combined with the fact that the ammo it used was amazingly underpowered, had saved my life. The Deets who used this pistol, a special-operations branch, were way too good. If they had been using AR-15s instead of the SMGs and pistols they had been issued, I’d be dead.
That being said, the pistol was unique in that it was incredibly silent. I had been almost in melee distance when they had been used against me and I could not hear it fire. Normally, what a suppressor does is make a gun sound further away, or gives the operator a chance not to be heard in combat. This pistol might be able to be fired during a loud party without anyone noticing. To top it off, despite the unbelievably moronic cocking handles, despite the suppressor, despite its odd height, and despite its twenty-round magazine, this was a subcompact pistol. If not for that utterly imbecilic receiver, I would have been amazed by it.
Finally, I began looking at the ammo. As I said before, it was caseless. That meant that there wasn’t any need for casings, cutting down on weight and space taken up by ammo or a need to eject extra bits of metal other than the actual bullet. The problem with caseless ammo was that the stuff that made the bullets move (usually gunpowder, but with the Deet weaponry, it could be anything) would explode much more easily. My guess was that they avoided having whatever propellant they used blowing up in the chamber by using the same material that made the guns feel cold to the touch despite it being around ninety Fahrenheit in my room, but that didn’t explain how they got the propellant in the bullet.
Determined to solve the mystery, I reached around in a Ziploc bag I had stored some of the Deet ammo in. I had been rooting around in it for barely a second when I felt something strange. I pulled it out.
Between my thumb and forefinger was one of the pistol bullets. Most of it was an unpainted metal that was so shiny it flashed even in the dim light of my room. However, near the bottom, there was a thin strip of what looked and felt like clay. After that, there was a thinner strip of metal where the firing pin could hit and ignite the propellant.
I began fiddling with it, trying to divine its secrets. During the fiddling, I accidentally twisted it. At the place where the clay met the metal, the clay part began to unscrew, revealing more clay beneath it. I paused, as an oddly sweet and spicy smell began filtering into the room.
Turning the bullet so that the contents wouldn’t get over the floor when I finally unscrewed it, I began to get the bottom part the rest of the way off. It came off extremely quickly. There, inside, was something that looked like vegetable matter. It was definitely a powder, but not the gunpowder I was familiar with. The interior of the bullet was filled to the brim with it.
I stared at it for a moment, breathing in the intoxicating fumes. Then I screwed the cap back on. As I did, I smiled. “Got you,” I said. I had figured out how the propellant got in the bullet. Now I just had to figure out what it was.
As I was considering how to do that, my cPhone suddenly made a boop. After putting the guns and accessories on the mattress, I pulled it out of the phone out of the desk. The cPhone, or campus phone, was a smart phone issued to all the students at NIU. It did a lot of other things as well, including automatically connecting to any cell tower.
When I looked at the screen, it was a text from Nari Lee, a girl we had rescued in North Korea. Despite being only nine, before the Dragon’s Teeth had gotten to the city she lived in, she had been in a special North Korean school designed to compete with NIU. The message read, “Greetings, Mr. Jacob. I heard you and Mr. Marshall arrived back at school tonight. By the way, we have a class together?”
Nari, it seemed, had gotten her own cPhone. I decided, since I was already up, I could text her back. “No which 1?” I typed.
“Gunsmithing 101,” Nari typed back. There was a pause. Then she typed back, “I’m at the Armory Store. Would you like to come?”
“Is Sunny there?” I asked. Sunny, one of the two North Koreans on our recon mission to North Korea over the summer, had sort of appointed herself Sunny’s guardian.
“Maybe,” Nari replied.
I sighed. Even over text messages, Nari was a terrible liar. “I’ll be right over,” I responded. I then began hurriedly getting dressed.
The Armory Store was a store in the Sun Tzu student center and the only place on campus authorized to sell guns. It wasn’t a big store, per se, but other factors that limited its selection of fine weapons were virtually non-existent. For instance, you could walk in with a wad of cash and walk out with something that was both illegal in my home state (or even Texas) and would still be unobtainable even if they were legal.
As I walked out, I almost walked into May. I was on the phone trying to get ahold of Sunny, so I almost whacked May with my phone. “Holy crap,” I said, “May, what are you doing here?”
May suddenly stopped the complicated freestyle she was doing. “Nate!” She said, obviously startled, “What are you doing in Cutter Country?”
“Uhhh…” I said, “this isn’t Cutter Country.”
May looked around. “Huh,” she said, “I must have paced farther than I thought. Sometimes, I get the urge to move, y’know? When I do, the best thing is to wander around and bust rhymes. Not that I’m any good at the whole freestyling thing, but I just like to do it because it kinda calms me and…”
“Hey,” I said, “I was just going to meet up with someone. Want to come?” Based on what Nari had said, it sounded like I might need to keep her in one place while Sunny came to get her. Right on cue, a message came back from Sunny.
“Oh my God,” the message said, “I’ll be right over. KEEP HER RIGHT THERE!”
“Who is it?” May asked.
“Someone I met over the summer,” I said, “you might like her. Or you might find it incredibly awkward because her guardian is kind of annoyed with her at the moment.”
Shortly after, we were standing in the Armory Store. “It’s weird…” May said, staring at the racks upon racks of weaponry, a mixture of disgust and awe in her voice, “…how much effort goes into these things.”
“You’re mostly right,” a voice with a slight North Korean accent said. I looked down and saw a small Asian child in jeans and a NIU t-shirt sitting on the floor. In front of her, a disassembled AK was spread across, almost completely disassembled. “This one, I believe it’s an AK-109 has a really interesting counterbalancing feature. It has almost no recoil, despite firing one of the most untamable rounds for a weapon of this type.”
May nodded. “I see,” she said. “Speaking of being untamable, are you really allowed to take weapons apart?”
“She’s actually not supposed to be here at all,” I said. Nari’s eyes suddenly widened as I continued, “I talked to her… guardian.” I turned back to Nari. “Why?”
“I like machines,” Nari said. “I like taking things apart and reassembling them. And Sunny had stayed up until two to finish her lesson plan, so I figured I could sneak out here.”
“And you would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for me,” I said. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s ok,” Nari said, reassembling the AK. “I just… I just never got to break the rules. It is quite a liberating experience.”
“Is she reassembling it?” a voice from the other side of a rack of SA-80s and TARs asked. I stood on tiptoes to see a very nervous cashier cowering by the register. “Please, please, please keep her away from the Walther. They didn’t even make two hundred.”
“Really?” Nari asked excitedly, snapping the final piece of the AK together. “Which one is that?”
“Before we do anything that’ll get us in even more trouble with Sunny,” I said, hoping to distract her, “Nari, this is May Riley. She’s the person who made the surgical glue that saved John and the Power Sludge. May, this is Nari Lee, someone I had to save from a very… strenuous position this summer.”
“Wait,” Nari said, a gleam in her eye, “you’re that Triple A medical student everyone on campus talks about?”
“Yeah,” May said. I could tell she wasn’t sure what to make of Nari. On the one hand, Nari was obviously a kindred spirit who needed help adjusting. May, having been bullied most of her life, could likely relate. On the other, May was a pacifist and very socially conscious. She took the “do no harm” part of the Hippocratic Oath very seriously. Nari, meanwhile, had an obvious interest in weaponry and not that much of an interest in being responsible.
Finally, after a pause, May took out an iPhone and said, “Hey, Nari, you want to listen to some cool music?”
A few minutes later, Nari and May were happily talking about Serj Tankian and Tech N9ne. I smiled. They had hit it off just like I had hoped they would. I just hoped Nari would survive pissing off Sunny.