John was unusually quiet as we exited the mansion. When we were in a suitably deserted section of the campus, he asked, “So, what did you two talk about?”
“The President warned us about Bai, Li, Charlotte and Eliza,” I said. “He seems to think that they’re going to get us killed.”
“And he isn’t?”
“Speaking of that,” I said, “he advises that we don’t poke around certain places at NIU. Especially ones that might have anything to do with the Dragon’s Teeth.”
“So all we have to do,” John said, “is not do the thing that makes the sociopath angry.” I hesitated. John sighed. “In case you were wondering, this is where you say, ‘You’re right, John, we’ll just leave it alone.’”
“You shouldn’t be surprised,” a cold, dead voice said. We turned around. There, wearing a dark red hoodie, long stringy hair falling out of the hood. The rain had probably soaked through her hoodie, but apart from her skin being as unhealthily pale as normal, she showed no signs of being cold. She regarded us with an unreadable expression and cold, dead eyes. “The entire reason Nathan came to this island was to save the world. It’s naïve, reckless and maybe a little egotistical, but he sees an opportunity to accomplish his goals.”
“Alma,” I said, “fancy meeting you here.” Alma Hebert was the former roommate of Eliza, Jen and Charlotte. She creeped everyone out, especially Jen. I wondered how much of that was because she was Psychic or because she was just creepy. “How much did you hear?”
“More than you think,” Alma said.
“Has anyone ever told you how creepy you are?” John asked.
“Once or twice,” Alma said. Maybe it was just me, but I could swear I heard a bit of wryness underneath her usual monotone. “But I do know that Nathan will pursue whatever it is that The President warned him about, no matter what you, I, or anyone else says.”
“Of course,” John said, “One of my friends has a death wish. Fuck me, right?”
While he said that, I watched him intently. When he paused for a breath, I said, “John, go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”
John, who looked like he was just about to get started, turned at me to stare for a moment. His brown eyes burned, but finally, he said, “Don’t bother.”
Alma and I watched John walk off. When he was finally far enough away, I turned back to Alma. “You know,” I said, conversationally, “I really wanted to talk to you. That facility you pointed out last year… the IRDF? Was that what you called it? It stood for Interdimensional Research Facility? It might tie into a few things I’m looking into.” I paused. “How do you know even know about that by the way? I looked into it, and every mention of it has appeared to have been scrubbed…”
Alma interrupted. “You’re asking the wrong questions.”
I was stunned. I don’t know why. “Excuse me?” I asked.
“You’re starting too small,” Alma said. As she spoke, I suddenly realized that she hadn’t moved a muscle the entire time. No adjustments, no blinking, she’d just stood there, hands in the pockets of her sweater. “This school was designed for one purpose, and one purpose only. You shouldn’t just be asking what IDRF One is for. You should be asking why a school is training future UNIX agents and Al-Qaeda terrorists. You should be asking why so few of its inventions leave its shores.” At this point, I noticed that Alma’s eyes hadn’t moved, either. She had focused on a point in between where John and I had been standing, and her gaze hadn’t shifted once. “Most importantly, you should ask… what is Anthony Carter Newton-Howell’s final goal?”
“Any reason you can’t just tell me?” I asked.
“I can,” Alma said, “but you wouldn’t believe me. Most days I can’t even believe it myself.” I could almost hear… emotion in her voice. She also shuddered. However, she quickly returned to her normal unreadable state. “Besides, the big question isn’t exactly difficult to answer.” She then turned and walked off. “Have fun opening Pandora’s Box, Nathan…”
I watched her leave. As usual, I left feeling disturbed and suspicious. Now, though, I was feeling somewhat used. I mean, why couldn’t she have just told me? Why the run-around? I mean, seriously, why wouldn’t I believe her? It wasn’t like The President had killed her and she’d decided not to die, or something.
Still, I had to get back home and get some sleep, maybe print out the plans for the Uilon Mangchi for Nari. However, as I walked back, the questions Alma had planted began to take up more of my mind. There was also another annoying thing: why was Al-Qaeda even in the school? They weren’t exactly the most well-behaved guests, especially in a Westernized place like NIU.
Even more galling was that I could have asked this question earlier. Then, I could have made use of the time I had spent with Mubashir. Instead, I had let him leave without setting up any method of communicating. There were so many reasons to do that: he might need an extraction, and I definitely needed information only he could provide.
Suddenly, as if thinking about him caused him to appear, I saw him stagger out of an ally almost right in front of me. Taking the opportunity, I grabbed him and forced him back behind the dumpster he had apparently been behind.
Understandably, he didn’t take that too well. When he was behind the dumpster, he punched me in the stomach and when I doubled over, he followed up with a knee to my face. I stood up just in time to see and hear him flip off the safety of a Makarov.
Obviously, despite the fact that I thoroughly deserved it, he didn’t pull the trigger. “Nathan?” he asked. “What in Allah’s name are you doing?”
“Hi, Moob,” I said, my breath short and my nose bleeding. “Sorry about that…” I took a quick break to cough, “…just needed to talk.”
“About what?” Mubashir asked, lowering his gun and flicking the safety. “What could be worth your life? I almost shot you!” He then said something in Arabic. I only caught the word Allah, so I assume it was something along the lines of “My God, I almost shot you, you idiot.”
“Sorry…” I wheezed. Damn, the guy punched hard. “There’s several things. One of the first things is… how come Al-Qaeda’s sending people to train… here.”
“I should think it’s obvious,” Mubashir said.
“Yeah…” I said, “…but the morals of this place don’t exactly match up… with the morals of Al-Qaeda. Then there’s also the question of how Al-Qaeda’s paying for…”
“Al-Qaeda isn’t paying,” Mubashir said.
“Excuse me?” I said.
Mubashir quickly looked around, then pulled me so I was fully in the alcove. He then continued in a hushed voice. “The reason I’m being shared with UNIX and the CIA is that the CIA is also curious about this deal. NIU trains and equips Al-Qaeda soldiers and even pays our airfare. In exchange… Well, we aren’t sure, but we believe Al-Qaeda, as well as other organizations from small criminal groups to certain government organizations provide NIU with favors.”
I suddenly felt a chill. “What kind of favors?”
Mubashir shrugged nervously. “Nothing big, from what I’ve been able to uncover. Mostly, from what I understand, you wouldn’t know they were acting any different. For instance, a former NIU student was trying to do some kind of charity work. I think women’s education. Al-Qaeda blows her up, using NIU-trained soldiers. Another group of NIU students opened up a tech company in the US, developing some kind of advanced tech. A venture-capital firm buys them up. The person in charge? An NIU student. The tech being developed? Canceled.”
He shook his head, as if trying to make sense of what he was saying. “There is this pattern of NIU students that are truly ahead of the curve who go to market and end up dead, broke, or imprisoned. My CIA handler thinks The President might be stockpiling the tech.”
“But why?” I asked. “What does he…” Suddenly, something clicked in my head. “He’s behind the Dragon’s Teeth.”
“Nate,” Mubashir said, “that is crazy. What kind of leap of logic…?”
“Listen,” I said, “I was in North Korea, I only got out a few days before the media finally took notice that The Dragon’s Teeth existed. I also have some idea that the reason the Grenzefrontier came back to Earth is because The Dragon’s Teeth are kicking them out of the planet they come from. Also, the IRDF building that Alma showed us last semester? I’m pretty sure that’s where they came from.”
Mubashir continued to look at me like I was crazy. “Dammit!” I shouted, causing his hand to move back to his pistol. “Where the hell else could a place get cloaking cloning, and advanced robotics?”
“But why would he build an army?” Mubashir asked. “Why would he hoard technology?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe he wants to take over the world. His clone army comes marching back to Earth, kicks the ass of every major government, and the only weapons that can stop him are sitting right under his feet. Alternatively, clone army comes stomping in, then he uses his superior tech to defeat them, people declare him a hero, he then uses the good will to declare himself the supreme ruler of the world.”
Mubashir shook his head. “This… theory of yours is based on loosely strung-together observations and guesswork. But you are right about one thing. The likelihood of The Dragon’s Teeth having something to do with Nowhere Island… well, your logic there is sound.”
“So you’ll look into it?” I asked.
Mubashir suddenly looked uncomfortable. “I could try,” he said, “but I’ve… I’ve been drawing attention. Plus, people have been watching us.”
“By us you mean…?”
“Al-Qaeda,” Mubashir said. “Our techie noticed some non-standard code on our devices, and we’ve been followed. They are starting to suspect me because…” He paused, then said, “We should leave separately. You go out the way you came in, I’ll go the back way.” He then began heading down the alley, saying over his shoulder, “Next time, I will contact you.”
I nodded in acknowledgement and waited for him to leave my line of sight. I then walked back to my room, suddenly that I had a headache. I wasn’t sure when it had started, so I wasn’t sure if it was the lack of sleep or trying to shoot the new gun. I also noticed that I was kind of wobbling a little bit as I walked.
However, when I got back to my dorm, after putting my weapons away and storing Nari’s external hard drive in a safe place, I decided to check out my computer. I wanted to see the policy for student inventions. I had remembered that they had been extremely draconian.
The thing is, as soon as I looked at it, the policy had completely changed. Instead of threats of lawsuits and deadlines for implementing ideas outside of NIU, there was talk of funding and free networking to help find clients.
I paused, suddenly becoming alert again. I quickly (and quietly, because John was fast asleep beside me) opened the desk drawer and pulled out a copy of the student handbook. Flipping through the pages, I found the section on inventions and ownership thereof. It was even less giving than I had remembered it being. I looked back at the website’s version, trying to reconcile the difference. Then I saw the date. Apparently, the last time it had been updated… was ten minutes after I had left The President’s mansion.
I smiled, then went to email Nari, May and Andy news of the change. Looking back on it, it was actually kind of a rambling letter with no point. Then, I considered doing something else. The problem with that was due to lack of sleep and my headache, I forgot what it was. So I decided (finally) to do the sensible thing and go to sleep.