My beat-up Subaru station wagon drove down 495 from Worcester to Boston. It probably was one of more well-maintained things on the road.
For instance, my body was still recovering from the various burns that I had sustained in the Dragon’s Teeth plasma bomb out west. They still hurt and itched, and my back wasn’t doing too well from where a Dragon’s Teeth Berserker had thrown me through a desk. Also, my leg, which had been injured in a training session, had been acting up recently as well.
The few other civilian vehicles on the road were also pretty messed up. Unlike my Subie, there were only a few cars on the road that didn’t have shattered windows or smashed bodywork. Many had their frames bent so badly that I was sure they shouldn’t be driving. Every so often, I would see a car that had finally stopped working somewhere in the process of being pulled off to the side of the road where Dragon’s Teeth spider droids would dismantle it. Sometimes, I would see them broken down, either on the side of the road or in one of the lanes, other times I would see Dragon’s Teeth vehicles pulling them onto the vehicular graveyards on the sides of the road, and other times I would see spider droids breaking them down and putting the bits in dumpsters. Most often I would see the graveyards off to the sides of the highway, a relic of America’s former status of a nation of drivers.
The vehicles I saw the most were under the control of the Dragon’s Teeth. Over a year ago, these psychic clone soldiers had invaded most of the world. Russia, China, both Koreas, all of Europe and a triangle between Turkey, Israel and Iran had all been taken over as well as the United States. Almost every naval vessel had been sunk or captured, as well as most of the shipping. The US and several other major food-producing nations had most of their harvest destroyed, livestock slaughtered or accidentally released, and many of their farmers murdered, so starvation was rampant. Luckily, there were a lot less mouths to feed.
The Dragon’s Teeth had been, according to their new leader, created and controlled by a group called the Jason Project. They had apparently planned on liquidating a larger chunk of the population of captured nations and pushing onwards. That was also evidenced by the bombed-out buildings I’d pass. The East Coast had been one of the last places to fall, and, when it looked like Canada and South America may have saved us, the fighting had been intense.
Eventually, I got into Cambridge. The Dragon’s Teeth had set up a regional HQ in what had been the Harvard campus. Somehow, that hadn’t been destroyed. Most of the other buildings had been leveled and a few were still burning from plasma weaponry.
The depopulation of Cambridge was made painfully clear by my ability to find a parking space. I parked in front of what had once been a store, but was now bits of crumbling frame and a crater made out of charred construction material and glass. Another casualty of the Dragon’s Teeth’s plasma-based weaponry.
Several Legionnaires, Dragon’s Teeth soldiers with Roman-inspired armor, began checking under my car with little wheelie mirrors. An Arachne spider droid also was using a chemical sniffer to check for explosives. Eventually, one Legionnaire signaled for me to get out of the car. I did and they quickly frisked and scanned me. Then one Legionnaire motioned for me to follow.
The Harvard campus had significantly improved from the last time I had been there. Six months ago, I had been locked up in those dorms and had seen the various methods of punishment the Dragon’s Teeth had employed. During the first week, they had been hanging two or three people to each streetlight and lining people up against the wall every four hours around the clock. By the second week, executions had almost completely stopped. That didn’t mean that people weren’t still dying. Starvation and crime were starting to kill hundreds, and the Jason Project apparently had no idea how to deal with that other than killing. Most of the Dragon’s Teeth, however, were tired of killing.
The person I was about to see, however, just wanted to kill one more person. When I got into the room, I saw that Olaf was still massive as usual. The man, with his baby face, pale skin, and huge body, was using a desk as a chair. Dragon’s Teeth Berserkers were so huge that most chairs were ridiculously tiny. Olaf had also removed his exosuit to avoid shattering the desk. I remembered how he had thrown me through one a little over a year ago. Olaf didn’t like me.
“Nathan,” he said, looking at me coldly, “how’s the factory going?”
“As well as can be expected,” I said. I looked out into the courtyard below. “I thought Alma said no more executions.” In the courtyard below, a dozen or so men in ratty clothes were being lined up against the wall.
“She said no more civilians,” Olaf corrected. “Those guys are JTF2. Canada’s been violating the cease fire a lot recently.” As a peal of gunfire rang out, he said, “I think the reinstated cops have been helping them, but the Death Mother wants hard evidence before I liquidate them. Anyway, we’ve been getting off-track.”
“The factory is at capacity,” I said. “In fact, it’s going over-capacity. I’m pushing the machinery to its limit. By the by, you should know that when it breaks down, and it’s a miracle it hasn’t broken down yet, the only one who can fix it is Andy Sebaldi. And he’s in Australia.”
“And are you sure that all the weapons are going to Dragon’s Teeth forces? No clandestine deliveries to any resistance forces?”
“What resistance forces?” I asked. “If there are any resistance forces, none of them have made a move to contact me. Besides, I’m not stupid. I know you have a bunch of my friends.”
“The Dragon’s Teeth high command is turning over a new leaf,” Olaf said in a bored, sarcastic tone of voice, rolling his eyes dramatically. “We’re shocked, shocked, that you would make such accusations.”
“Let me rephrase that,” I said, “I know you have my friends. And I know Alma doesn’t have as tight a leash on you guys as she’d like me to believe.” After a pause, I added, “you know, I’m still not sure how many of my friends survived. I haven’t talked to them in several months, either.”
“And what are you going to do about it?” Olaf asked. “Right now, I’m just surprised you’ve been able to sober up enough to drive down here.”
“I can see you shaking,” he said disgustedly, “and I have some contacts among you people. What have to be the last few bottles of Jack Daniels from here to Worcester came into your possession and you’ve been moving on to the Johnny Walker and Knob Creek. Just keep making guns, and we’ll keep your friends alive.”
“Maybe,” I said, a rage burning inside, “this is a sign I need something else. A carrot.”
“My carrot is that I follow orders,” Olaf said, “and I act within the Geneva Convention.”
“You wanna see my stick?” I asked. “I can go home, get loaded as fuck, and break every single assembly line except the ones that make food and medicine. God knows everyone needs those two, and I won’t increase starvation just to get back at you.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know how those machines worked,” Olaf said, as if he had caught me in a lie.
“I have no clue how to repair serious problems,” I said, “but I spent several years learning how to break things. Then, after I’m done, I might just kill myself. That sounds like fun.” I began counting on my fingers. “The Picts will be pissed off because my redesigned of the 416 will stop, the Zulus will be pissed because they like the armaments I make, Alma will be pissed because I’m dead and that fouls up her plans, and the Legionnaires will be pissed because Alma’s pissed.” Olaf’s eyes narrowed. “And,” I said, on a roll, “even if none of that matters, I still win because I’ve turned off one more stream of resupply for you.” I sat down on a chair, breathing heavily.
In the silence that followed, Olaf’s head twitched. Finally he said, “You’ve got a very good understanding of how things work.”
“I doubt it’s any better than most of the countries you haven’t taken over,” I said. “You’re not as mysterious or unknowable as you think you are. And your position isn’t sustainable. You’ve taken a beating and overextended yourself. There’s no way you haven’t, and the other countries players are going to catch up.”
Olaf cocked his head. “Are you saying we should have kept going? Because that’s what I’ve been saying.”
“No,” I said, “I’m saying you’re lucky you stopped when you did. It’s only a matter of time before the first mass uprising happens. It’s only a matter of time before the first IEDs are planted. And I know that they’ve already started sniping at you guys already. You’re going to spend the rest of your lives putting down partisans, no matter what I do.”
“I think the world is going to be too busy starving to be fighting,” Olaf said, “but I might welcome that. It’ll solve the food distribution problem.”
I laughed. “Oh my God,” I said, trying to breathe, “the Jacob Project had no idea how to lead. We’re all going to die. We’re all going to slowly starve to death because they forgot people need food and people to grow it!”
“I’m glad you find this amusing,” Olaf said. “But that reminds me, we need to produce more Power Sludge.”
“The reason those lines are running at eighty percent,” I said, “is because if we fuck those up, that source of food disappears. I am not risking that.”
“That’s too bad,” Olaf said, “because we’ve killed most of the farmers.”
I leaned back. “Then congratulations,” I said, “The Jacob Project has killed us. We’re fucked. Farming is hard.”
“In other news,” Olaf said, trying not to seem worried, “The UN, or what’s left of it, is requesting they send in a monitoring detachment to prevent human rights abuses.”
“That should be fun,” I said. “You guys are pretty much designed to commit war crimes and they can’t do jack shit.”
“So you aren’t going to help?”
“What am I going to do to help?” I asked. “If I tell them what angels you are, all that’s going to do is just make them not trust me. You guys used psychoactive gases and left millions of witnesses, that has to be about thirty-six war crimes per person exposed or something.”
“That’s not the point,” Olaf said. “The remaining nations know that we’ve radically changed doctrine. They want to know that it’s moving in the right direction. There’s also secondary concerns, like non-proliferation, environmental protection, and economic recovery.”
“Did they say it was secondary?” I asked. “Because all of this seems like they’d be primary.” Environmental concerns, to me at least, seemed like it could be a huge concern. After all, the most powerful remaining member of the UN was Canada. Canada was near the northern ice caps. Based on how Christmas this year was a chilly seventy degrees Fahrenheit, those ice caps must be decreasing at a rather alarming rate.
“No,” Olaf said, now obviously concerned. After a while, he asked, “Would you like to meet with the people who’ve been captured?”
“That is what I’ve spent the past few months lobbying for,” I said.