I take a deep breath and say to the Berserkers, “If I surrender, will you let everyone else surrender as well?”
“Take a look,” the Berserker said. “I know your cameras are up.” I did, and quickly notice that the defenders who aren’t fighting back, the injured, the tired, and the ambushed, were being zip-tied and secured. “If I had it my way,” the Berserker talking to me said, “I’d drop a tactical plasma bomb on you and piss on the ashes. But the Death Mother wants you alive. Oh, and don’t think about fighting back. Your little rip-off guns may work on the other Believers, but not on our armor.”
I looked at the fight again. Sure enough, they were doing fairly well except against the normally armored Deet soldiers, but were bouncing off the Berserkers like spit balls. It didn’t really affect my decision. I was done. I turned to the intercom once again, and said, “Ok, the Teeth have offered a deal. Basically, unconditional surrender. Do what you want with it.”
I then turned to Eliza. “Well, we might as well give up.”
She stood up and began to roll up the Kevlar panel. “I don’t think of it as giving up,” she said, her voice so quiet I could barely hear. “I think of it as living to fight another day.”
She then opened the heavy security door, revealing the massive frames of two Berserkers. They were too big to fit through the door, so the stepped aside and gestured for us to come out. I pushed myself out, and Eliza, after realizing I was moving out under my own power, exited before me.
The Berserkers quickly searched us and took any weapons they found. Then, one threw Eliza over his back and another did the same to me and the group began heading downstairs. When we got to the basement, I saw all the injured and captured defenders were brought down there. The one carrying Eliza threw her on the floor, but the one carrying me continued to walk off.
“OI!” Eliza said, getting up, “THE ‘ELL YOU TAKING ‘IM?” The Berserker, in response, kicked her in the stomach and stood on her.
“Hey!” I yelled. “What the fuck?”
The two Berserkers carrying me just continued on. We went through the sewers, eventually, after a good long while of walking, coming up around the train station. That station was now crawling with Charons, vehicles that seemed specifically designed to imitate Chrysler Escalades, and a new tank that looked like one of those WWI landships, except bigger. The vast majority of Dragon’s Teeth were Legionaires, and I could see that they, at least, were still mostly carrying their Pilum bullpup rifles and Gladius SMGs. Their distinctive Roman-inspired armor was either in a pixelated urban pattern, or a shiny chrome-like color polished to mirror finish. I saw a few armors change color.
There were a few of the new type of Dragon’s Teeth in what I now saw was African-inspired armor, and I noticed that many of them carried Pilum and Gladius as well, but they seemed to use my weapons when they could get their hands on them. I also saw Picts in their darker than black armor inspired by Gaelic designs, and to a man they had ditched their primary weapons for AK and AR-pattern weapons with the occasional MP5, MPX or FAL.
I was taken up into an office. The only other Berserkers I had seen were standing by the door, three on each side. Two had miniguns and ballistic shields and their Norse-inspired armor was bulkier and appeared to have a more powerful exoskeleton system than the others. The other four seemed to have taken their machineguns from dead US soldiers. Unlike the other Dragon’s Teeth soldiers who had only looked at me in passing, these guys had their glowing red eyes locked on me.
Inside the room, was a wooden desk and several bits of creature comfort. I knew this because the Berserker threw me down onto the desk, shattering it. A picture of what had to be the children of the office’s owner fell onto my face, and an LCD monitor clattered to the ground. Underneath my back, I could feel wooden splinters lacerating my back and a smashed plastic keyboard. My back hurt like hell. Above me, the fluorescent lights set in cheap, ugly asbestos ceiling tiles vibrated and other lights danced, mocking the pounding in my head.
“Please try and escape,” the Berserker said. I looked at him. He was wearing the bigger armor, but his ballistic shield was missing and his minigun was holstered on a backpack-like device. He then kneeled down and leaned in close so his huge mask was almost touching my face. “The Death Mother might want you alive, but I want you dead. You and your little team were the first infantry unit to kill one of us with small arms, and then you scrapped my mission to Japan.” All I could do in response was groan in pain.
He stood up suddenly. “Excuse me. I need to talk someone. Hopefully, I’ll be able to give him a retirement present.” He then left the room. His exiting through and closing of the door was surprisingly graceful for someone who had to exit at sort of an angle while ducking. His boots, however, caused the entire room to shake and dust to fall off the walls.
I, on the other hand, was dealing with what had to be a concussion. My back was also in such bad shape to the point that I was surprised to be feeling my legs. Even if I wanted to leave (which I didn’t,) it would have taken a superhuman effort just to sit up. I rolled off the desk, hoping to be able to find some painkillers in the shattered drawers, but instead spent the next several minutes crying in pain.
To distract myself from the pain, I began to wonder what kind of person had used the office. Not whether or not they were alive, no. That was too depressing. Instead, I tried to guess what kind of person they were. For instance, did they get that original Star Wars poster because they became a fan when they were a kid like I had, or did they watch it in theaters? Or, as the other posters indicated, did he just like to collect advertisements and propaganda? What was that award with the statue of a train in recognition of? Those certificates, were they for graduation? Awards? Something else? When I tried to get a better look at the framed pieces of paper, pain shot up and down my spine.
I decided to turn back to the desk. Well, apparently this guy had some chronic pain. First drawer had a bottle of prescription-grade ibuprofen. The bottle said “Take one every 12 hours,” but I took two. They did nothing.
For fifteen or so minutes, I waited for them to kick in. I also waited for my head to stop spinning like a dreidel. The sound of a landing VTOL didn’t really help matters. At least the telepathic communications and electric motors made the Teeth relatively quiet for a military. Then I heard shouting and stomping.
The door flung open and a man stomped in. “Your rules of engagement don’t allow the taking of prisoners! And you’re only allowed to use weapons provided by the Jason Project! What the hell is going on, Commander Olaf?” He then paused, and asked, “and why is that person still alive?”
A Berserker, possibly the one who had brought me up, said, “Orders. Wish I could kill him, make it nice and violent.” I could almost hear him shrug as he said that.
“Wait…” the man said, “Who ordered you?”
The Berserker, or Commander Olaf as he was apparently known, laughed. “You know who.”
“Capsaicin Umbra,” the strange man said in clear voice that was doing a very good, but not quite convincing, impression of someone who wasn’t panicking.
“What,” Olaf said, with a barely contained chuckle, “do you think she was doing for the past ten years? Do you really think Ulfric or any of the others leaving was an accident? She was weakening our triggers.”
“Olaf,” the Jason Project member said, “You can’t trust Subject One-Four-Eight. She… she…”
“She’s been in my head since before you started your brainwashing,” Olaf said. “Comforting me and my brothers. Even the dead. Even people who we’ve been forced to kill for your stupid little quest to destroy the world or whatever.”
“We aren’t destroying the world,” the Jason Project member said, “we’re saving it.”
In response, Olaf sighed. “You’re lucky that She ordered the retribution to be painless.”
“Wait! No no-!”
There was a crack of a pistol, and the Jason Project member began screaming. “Whoops,” Olaf said. “That round didn’t go where I wanted it to. Too bad, we’re low on ammo and I don’t really want to waste another bullet.” I heard the thump of Olaf walking to the window sill. Eventually, I could see Olaf’s armored body appear in my field of view. He took his helmet off with a hiss and turned around. “Shame I couldn’t do that to you.”
Seeing his face finally confirmed something I had suspected for a while now. “Ulfric’s a Berserker, too, isn’t he?” I asked. “That guy I knew at NIU. He looked a lot like you, except with crazy eyes.” The square, baby face, the gray eyes, the brutally short hair… Physically, he looked exactly like Ulfric. However, there was something more… there about him, if that makes sense. If he ripped off someone’s head, I wouldn’t be wondering if he knew what had done.
“Exactly like me, I’d bet,” Olaf said. “Luckily he’s…” Suddenly his face went extremely pale.
“He’s here, isn’t he?” I asked. Olaf, meanwhile, began to pace nervously. “Hey, Olaf?” I asked. “You ok?”
“Yes,” he said. “But not for long.”
The door smashed open. A large whirlwind of blue NIU hoodie, black cargo pants, and combat boots ran around and smashed Olaf through the window. The figure let Olaf dangle through the window for what had to feel to the victim like an eternity, the newcomer’s other fist raised, ready to smash into Olaf’s face. I couldn’t see either one’s face or even much of Olaf’s body, and I definitely couldn’t make out any psionic conversations. Eventually, the figure I assumed to be Ulfric pulled in Olaf and threw him away one-handed like garbage. Olaf seemed to be thankful nothing worse had happened.
Ulfric, meanwhile, turned around to survey the scene with a look of horror on his face. I must have looked like shit and the Jason Project member was now moaning horribly. “Please…” he whimpered, “help me…”
Ulfric’s look of horror turned to one of disgust when he saw the Jason Project member. He then turned to me and picked me up like a baby. I screamed and groaned as my back moved. Ulfric, with his typical grace, managed to get us out the door without bumping my head. As we walked down the stairs, he said, “Sorry.”
“You seem… better than you were,” I said.
“Still have trouble talking,” he said. “Because of my meds. I’m more alert. More aware.” He paused, then said, “I hate it.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I have to live with the stuff I do when I have a ‘good’ day,” he said. “And I realize the stuff I don’t have.”
I suddenly was reminded of what I had seen in Japan. The hallucination of what seemed to be a representation of the Dragon’s Teeth hive mind. Thousands, maybe even millions, of lights, in colors I couldn’t even comprehend surrounding a black hole. And close to the black hole, was a speck of light separate from all the others. “Hey, Ulfric?” I asked. “Are you, you know, connected to the rest of the Dragon’s Teeth?”
He stared at me for a while. “Sort of,” he said. I noticed that as we walked, the various Dragon’s Teeth recoiled from him. Again, I was reminded of the hive mind. He eventually set me down among injured Dragon’s Teeth and began to wander off, leaving me alone in a room full of dying clones and clone medics.
The room turned yellow and things began to swim. I turned around to see Alma looking out over the casualties. “I failed,” she said. “These are good people, compelled to do horrible, horrible things from birth.”
“So,” I said, “I take it the Jason Project weren’t good people?”
“Well,” Alma said, “I might not be the best person to ask. They did kidnap and technically kill me.”
“Technically kill you?” I asked.
“I was the anchor for their entire psionic network,” Alma said, looking out over the injured soldiers. “I think that’s why I survived. I was split among all the clones. All my children. I remember every single one of them and I keep their souls in me.” She shrugged. “I guess it’s not really scientific, but it’s the best way to describe it.”
“Any other non-Dragon’s Teeth souls get sucked up?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Everyone’s. It’s hard. So many people die in pain and rage, and I can feel all of it, the bad bits especially. Someday I’m going to either become numb or insane. Or maybe I’ll finally just stop existing.” She turned to look at me, and I heard a bit of hope in her dead monotone. “It’s physically impossible to last forever, right? I’m not a god?”
For some reason, the idea of her being hopeful that she’d die chilled me to the bone. It also reminded me of how Mubashir believed his powers were a punishment. To avoid thinking about it, I asked, “So, what do you want from me?”
“Not just you,” Alma said. “There are probably only one or two things that only you can do, but you might be able to convince your friends of some things.
“First, I don’t want any more of my children to die. You aren’t fully in control of that, I know, but you and your friends could do enough damage to be… mildly tragic.”
“We don’t seem to be able to do that much,” I said.
“You gave them enough hope to keep fighting,” she said. “And now I have to spend all eternity with people who died killing each other, feeling the pain they felt at the moment of their death.” I looked away uncomfortably. “All you did,” Alma said, her voice breaking with sadness, “is cause a thimbleful more suffering.” She composed herself and then, in her normal monotone, said, “I’d prefer to minimize that. You understand, right?”
“And I’d prefer that the Dragon’s Teeth hadn’t wrecked everything,” I said, “but here we are.”
“Do you think that I didn’t try to stop that?” Alma asked, her skin-crawling monotone becoming more and more icy. “Do you think I like feeling the eternal torment of everyone who died in this useless war?” She looked slightly upwards, as if looking through the building. “Something is coming. It’s going to kill even more people. Stay out of my way or I might get tired of you being alive. Understand?”
I recoiled at the anger. Alma turned back to me. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped. But I’ve worked hard to get to the point where I can have coup.”
“Honestly,” I said, “you can do whatever you want. You have the power.”
“That’s another thing,” she said. “I’m too powerful. I’m losing my connection with the rest of humanity. That’s the reason I went to NIU. The rest of the people I know, except maybe Ulfric, treat me like either a god or a monster.” She paused. “Never mind. The last member of the Jacob Project has been accounted for.”
“They really were terrible, weren’t they?” I asked.
“Most of them, yes,” Alma said. “There were a few exceptions, but we’re getting off-topic. The thing is, I need an anchor.”
“Someone, or several someones, to talk to. To listen to. To make sure I’m not becoming too divorced from reality. Who better than some of my former classmates from NIU?”
“And am I the first?” I asked. “I’m flattered.”
“No, I asked Eliza first.” She then said, “There’s also another person who might need help. Mubashir Mubarak. In terms of power, he’s the closest thing to me. He’ll need help eventually, and he might go to you.”
“And why don’t you go help him yourself?” I asked. “You’re probably the only one who can understand him.”
“I already have too much power,” Alma said, “and you want me to cozy up with Mubashir? Besides, I don’t think he’d take too kindly to me just suddenly appearing.”
“Point taken,” I said. “But what about Mayu? And what’s this horrible thing that’s coming?”
“You don’t need to worry,” Alma said, “let me worry about that.”
And then she left and the room went back to normal.
In other news, we have a Discord server now. In case that floats your boat.