The next week was much the same, except I didn’t try and design a gun in my spare time. That meant way, way more sleep. The only problem was that “way, way more sleep” still translated to “very little.” I actually kind of liked it, though. Going to bed tired as fuck meant I could sleep without nightmares.
Speaking of nightmares, they were getting worse and worse. I remember that once Alma told me that emotional distress was as real and legitimate as physical pain. I thought about that a lot as I lay in my bed, praying I wouldn’t dream, my ribs still aching from the bullets my plate had stopped in North Korea and my leg giving the occasional twinge from when it had been perforated by shrapnel in the Hell Semester final. Fun times.
After our radio show finished on Monday, Andy took me aside. “Hey,” he said, “we got your email. May wants to have a shareholder’s meeting to discuss what to do next.”
“When is it going to be?” I asked.
“After the study group,” Andy said. “Also… Nari’s been busy.”
“Really?” I said, intrigued by how tired and disgusted Andy sounded. “What’s she been doing?”
“More like ‘what’s she been making me do,’” Andy said. “She’s got me working on making a frigging prototype ammo factory in Nari’s basement. She even has multiple 3D printers to help make parts to build the factory. Meanwhile, she’s making several copies of the second prototype.”
“Really?” I asked. “How’s it coming?”
“Well, we haven’t tested it yet,” Andy said. “Mostly because I’m afraid of it and May and Sunny will kill us both if Nari fires it.” He paused, then said, “Also, I hope you’re not attached to its looks. Nari decided to take your notes about marketing to heart.”
“Really?” I said. “What did she do?”
“I hope you like how Desert Eagles and Jerichos look,” Andy said, “because she watched a few action movies and decided the slide needed to be triangular.”
“I’m a Jewish gun nut,” I said. “I’m required by the Talmud to think that’s totally sweet.”
“Understandable,” Andy said, “but she also extended the barrel beyond the slide.”
I stopped. “But… but why?” I asked.
“It’s got something to do with being able to add on accessories,” Andy said. “I tried telling her that would add to the final cost, but she keeps saying people will want to add flash hiders and suppressors.”
I remembered how loud it was and how bright the muzzle flash was. “Yes,” I said. “They will. Trust me.”
Andy nodded. “Yeah, I heard the stories. Nari’s lucky her concussion wasn’t a lot worse.”
“Is she alright?” I asked. “Probably should have asked sooner. She sounded ok at the time, but that isn’t always a good indicator.”
“May’s actually going to talk to her about that,” Andy said. “Should be fun.” I nodded in agreement knowing that what Andy meant was, “There’s going to be a huge fight, and we will wish we were elsewhere.”
Conversation moved on to other things. Apparently, some jackass outside NIU (or “the world” as Andy called it) was saying that game developers should work eighty hours a week. Due to my dad’s job in the tech industry and having worked one myself, I had a few things to say about that. Since Andy’s parents were also in the same industry, he raged with me.
However, just as we were about to enter the cafeteria, Eliza came up to us. “Oi, Nate,” she said. “Got a mo’?” She appeared agitated.
“I was actually about to…” I began, gesturing at the cafeteria.
Eliza cut me off. “I’ll buy you dinner after.” She then grabbed my hand and proceeded to drag me away.
We were deep in what I thought to be Rogue country when I finally worked up the courage to ask, “Hey, Eliza, what’s going on?”
“I’m fixing things between my friends,” Eliza growled. “I’m bloody tired of hearing Bai bad-mouth you all the time. I’m also tired of you not understanding what this five-‘undred year mess means to some people.”
Eventually, she led me right into a building that had apartment style dorm rooms. Our stop was apparently a dorm room on the second floor. Eliza opened the door (over the summer, most of the locks had been changed to use student’s cPhones as keys,) revealing a cramped hallway/kitchen and a common area inside.
As I walked into the common room, I saw Bai was sitting on one of the couches. Our eyes met at the same time. She nodded coolly as I sat down on the couch opposite from her that Eliza indicated. Eliza looked us both over, frowned and said, “Right. Now ‘ere’s the problem as I see it. The first part is that you, Nate, think the Final Prophecy is completely mad, and everyone ‘oo believes in it is a nutter.”
“That is more strongly than I’d put it,” I said as diplomatically as possible. Eliza cocked her head. I sighed, “But yes, I don’t really see any evidence to support that its coming true.”
“It’s real!” Bai exploded suddenly. I had never seen her this agitated before. “The signs are all there! The…”
“Oi!” Eliza said sharply, her foxlike ears flattening. “The fuck’d I tell you, Bai? And you,” she pointed back to me, “sit your ass back down!”
“I’m not going to…” I began.
“Down.” Eliza said, emphasizing her point by pointing at the floor. I sat down. Eliza surveyed us, her green eyes daring us to defy her. “Anyway,” she said when she was sure dissent had been quashed, “If I’m reading Bai correctly, not only has she been raised in a group that believes wholeheartedly in this prophecy, but she believes that she, single-‘andedly, can save the bloody world.”
“Do you think I’m an idiot?” Bai asked Eliza harshly.
“Frankly,” Eliza said, “Yeah. I think the two of you’d be tied for the bloody stupidest wankers in this school if it weren’t for my sis and your brother. You both believe that if you stick your limbs into enough meat grinders, you’ll end up saving the world. And because I’m also a bloody idiot, I’ve decided looking after Char wasn’t enough. And keeping you two imbeciles alive means making sure you don’t kill each other.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Look,” Eliza said, “I like both of ya, if you haven’t already guessed. But I wasn’t trained to be some ‘ero of legend or raised in a comfortable suburb where no one’d even look at you funny.”
I looked away. Despite it being in my face on a daily basis, I’d somehow managed to push the fact that I was white, middle-class American male in a program that deliberately targeted the poorest people from the poorest countries. Also, before Eliza had been adopted, life hadn’t exactly been sunshine and roses for her. Looking up, I noticed that Bai was also looking at the ground.
“I think,” she said, possibly not realizing my thoughts, “that this calls for a meeting of the minds. Instead of jumping down each other’s throats, let me ask Nate a few questions. Then we might be able to continue this discussion in a friendly manner. Is that acceptable?”
It was obviously a rhetorical question. Eliza’s glare made that clear. However, to assuage her wrath, we both reassured her that we were fine with this suggested plan. I believe the strategy is known as the “let the Lupine win” maneuver.
“Alright,” Eliza said. “First question, Nate. Did you see anything in North Korea that might rule out The Final Prophecy is being realized?”
“No,” I said. “But that doesn’t really resolve anything, does it? I can’t really prove a negative, can’t I?”
“That leads me to my next question,” Eliza said.
“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re going to ask if I saw anything to indicate that The Dragon’s Teeth are really working for a death goddess.”
“Lord,” Bai corrected. “The Lord of Death. Masculine form.”
I considered my options. The most tempting was to just say fuck it and go on not believing in the prophecy. The other was to insist that it was really a female. I finally decided to just ask, for the sake of civility and my jugular, “Does it have to be male?”
There was a long pause. Bai and Eliza stared at each other long and hard. Finally Eliza suggested, “These dream thingys the Prophecy was revealed with weren’t specific, were they? And it was an age ago, comin’ up on five ‘undred years, innit? Could it be that no one saw the gender and assumed something that destructive ‘ad to be a bloke?”
“I would like to think the seers were more perceptive,” Bai said, “but I have heard of several Indian versions that use feminine versions for The Lord of Death. There’s also one European version, Italian, I believe, that thought of The Lord of Death as an abstract force. Of course, we neglected that version because it didn’t mention Death’s army.” After this exchange, they turned to me, Bai asking, “Any particular reason for asking?”
“We stumbled upon a Dragon’s Teeth prayer session,” I said. “They mentioned their Goddess, specifically mentioning she was female.”
“And you didn’t mention this because…?” Eliza asked.
“I thought they were messing with us,” I said. “I still think they are, but by us, I mean The President. All I know is that their Goddess, they call her Thanna, scares The President. I think he knows, or suspects, who Thana is.” I sighed. “The problem is, I have no proof. Even worse, I don’t have enough information to form my own theories!”
“The prophecy can guide us,” Bai said. “Do you believe us in that the Lord of Death’s army has arrived?”
“I’m less inclined to believe that you’re putting your faith in a fairy tale,” I said, “and I agree the Dragon’s Teeth are a huge threat, but I’m only fifty-percent convinced that this Lord of Death is an actual thing.”
Bai sighed. “What if I told you that The Architect will reveal himself, herself, or itself next? When… it shows up, would you believe me then?”
“Maybe,” I said. “What does The Architect do?”
Bai and Eliza looked at each other. “Manipulate reality, I guess?” Eliza said, shrugging. “That’s all I got, really.” I sighed. That was a little vague. If I stretched the definition, I manipulated reality every time I opened a freezer.
“We call him Bai Wan Shan De Emo,” Bai said. “In English, it means Million-Handed Demon. Does that help?”
Million-Handed Demon. As soon as I heard those words, I could feel myself going pale. My lunch also began trying to escape my stomach and I felt the floor drop out from under me. I even had to check to make sure I wasn’t free-falling. I wasn’t, but looking down made my stomach feel even worse. It was a visceral sensation that any person who’s undergone a panic attack will instantly recognize.
“Nate,” Eliza asked, “you alright, Nate?”
I barely heard her. I was flashing back to my first day back and the… thing that had accosted me. My body shuddered, as if the invisible hands were groping me again. I remembered the entire ordeal… the distortion of reality, the way the hands had imprisoned me, their grasping of things that should not be grasped, and the… and the…
No. That wasn’t something that would happen to me, right? Not again. In fact, I doubted you could even call it that. That kind of thing doesn’t happen to people like me, right?
“NATE!” I jerked up. Eliza’s face was right in front of my own, and I suddenly realized I was covered in sweat. “Nate,” she asked, “are you alright?”
I suddenly realized that I was about to barf. “Bathroom,” I managed to choke out. Eliza pointed me in the right direction, and I ran, pushing the door open.
Five minutes later, I was done voiding the contents of my stomach. It was another three before I could stop retching. “Nathan,” Bai said from outside the room, “are you alright?”
“Yeah, mate,” Eliza said, walking into the room, “you look like you need a doctor.”
“The Architect…” I began.
“What would you like to know about…” Bai began, but I cut her off.
“The Architect’s on Nowhere Island.”