Track 28: King of Wishful Thinking

“Don’t worry,” the SAS operative said, “We’ll find ‘er.” I shook my head vhemenently. “Listen, mate,” the operative said, “she was bleedin’ from ‘er eyes from the field. I’m surprised she’s even still standing.”

“Everything…” I said, “about her is… wrong. Find her.”

Eliza slung her rifle over her shoulder. “Right,” she said, “You need to stop talking.”

“She was trained as a ninja,” John said, “and she knows this castle and the surrounding area inside and out. How long have we got again?”

“Half an hour,” the operative said with a sigh. “You’re right.” He then put a hand to an ear and said, “Package is secure. We need a stretcher over ‘ere. Be advised, Maiden is armed, dangerous, and active in the area. Repeat, Maiden is on site.”

“Right,” Eliza said, “we’ve got to get him moving.”

“Did…” I began.

“Shut up, Nate,” Eliza said.

“Did you find Bai?”

Eliza stared at me. Then she said, “Shut the fuck up, Nate.” The dangerous look on John’s face made me think he seconded that sentiment.

“She’s…” I gasped out, “another… loose end. Just as dangerous. Also, what about… Jen?”

“Jen and company are heading back home,” John said. “I’m going with her. We haven’t found Bai, but I personally don’t give a shit.” He shook his head. “Can’t believe I slept with her.”

“I’m… I’m sorry…” I said.

“Not your fault, Nate,” John said. He looked pointedly at Eliza as if to say who he thought was to blame. “And I can’t entirely blame her. I mean, she had her loyalties, and she knew what was going on. Unlike some people.”

“You fuckin’ what, mate?” Eliza whispered, her voice strained.

“Oh, was I being too subtle? YOU FUCKED EVERYTHING!” John yelled. He took a step forwards. “You and your dumbass of a sister…”

“You,” Eliza said, her face white, her claws popping out and her voice deadly quiet, “leave Char the fuck…”

“Oi!” the SAS operator said, quickly stepping between them and physically pushing them apart. “Stow it.” He glared at them in turns. “You said you were professionals. Act like it.”

John and Eliza glared at each other for a few more seconds. “I’m going to check the route back to the LZ,” John said. “Make sure it’s clear.” He then stalked off, Eliza glaring at him all the way.

Eliza began pacing and muttering under her breath. From what I could tell, it was mostly swearing directed at John. I just sat there awkwardly, listening to gunfire. From what I could tell, it was dropping off. Whether that meant someone was winning or if perimeters had just been secured and defined, I couldn’t tell.

Eventually, several operators, most with M-4 pattern weapons and one with what looked to be an internally silenced G3, came into view. I made a note of that last weapon because I instantly wanted it. Two stood outside the room, aiming down the hallway. Three more began quickly and efficiently unpacking a stretcher. A fifth began checking the medical devices I was hooked up to and a sixth was checking me.

“Either these guys aren’t very devious,” the one checking the medical devices, “or they’re incredibly scary. This stuff is clean.”

“You certain?” Eliza asked. “I don’t want to unhook ‘im and find out that that triggers a bomb or some sort of toxin.”

“He’s got no IVs in him, no EKGs, no wires of any sort,” the operator said. “There shouldn’t be any way to trigger some sort of trap. Unless there’s something you want to tell us?” I thought for a moment, then shook my head.

“Right,” the operator who had been checking me over said. He took out some clippers. “Let’s get him outta here.” Quickly and efficiently, he used the clippers to cut the chains of the handcuffs. I was then removed from the Defender oxygen machine and hooked up to a portable one the SAS medics had set up.

The process of getting me onto the stretcher and off the bed was quick, yet painful. “We’re going to buckle you in, ok?” one of the operators said. “We don’t want you falling off the stretcher.” I nodded. “You’re sure?” the operator asked. I could imagine them doing a similar operation where someone they had rescued freaked out when the restraints came out. To reassure them, I gave an exaggerated thumbs-up. The operators all sighed in relief as they strapped me in.

When I was secure, the operators radioed their status, then began hurrying out. We passed a lot of bodies. When we passed a pile of corpses outside a room with what looked to be a burning server farm, I noticed with a start that one of the bodies was Hiro. The way the bodies were arranged, it was like someone had appeared in the midst of them and sprayed them with automatic weapons fire. It had to be Mayu who did that.

Eventually, we got to the stairs. It was still a great place for someone to ambush us, and it was a lot slower than it should have been because I was on a stretcher. Eventually, we came out to the door. Outside, I could hear jets circling around. The radio crackled. “Orbit is touching down,” a staticy voice said. “Repeat, Orbit is touching down for dustoff. Move fast, we’re still receiving reports of hostiles active in the vicinity.”

The SAS operators and Eliza all exchanged some unspoken signal. Then we burst through the door. Ahead of us, a stealth VTOL designed for troop transport was waiting for us, complete with side bay doors and miniguns. Inside were medics getting ready for my arrival and people manning the miniguns. Its wheels were down, but since the jets were still on they were hovering a few inches off the ground.

One of the medics yelled something at us, but it was impossible to hear him over the whine of the jet engine. Then something hit the sides of the VTOL, making sparks. I thought I heard the sound of an SMG coming from the window above. I turned around just in time to see what the minigun was doing to where the gunner thought the shooter was. Multi-century-old brick was turned to powder and dust.

As soon as we were all buckled in, the VTOL screamed off into the air. Someone had put noise-canceling earphones on my head, but the sound was still ear-splitting. If I hadn’t been strapped in, I would have been thrown around wildly.

“So,” Eliza said, her voice crackling over the radio in the helmet, “I don’t think we’ve told you, Nate, but we’re going to NIU.”

I considered responding, but they hadn’t given me a mic. Trying to yell above the noise was going to be like trying to stop a tsunami using only my pinky, and that was pretending my lungs were working.

Eliza, correctly realizing the situation, continued. “I know you can’t talk, so I’m going to tell you as much as I possibly can. We have no bases in country that the Japanese wouldn’t poke their noses into. We also need to keep this quiet. Not sure if you know the situation, but the world’s gone to shite. The Dragon’s Teeth are fucking everyone up, and the last thing ‘Er Majesty wants is to piss off a potential ally against them. We’ll need to disappear after this, as well as get you healed up. NIU’s a brilliant place for both those things.”

I nodded. I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I’d get there, but at least I’d be safe. I closed my eyes. For now, my fight was over. Now it was time to take a well-earned nap.

 

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Ok, some bad news. I am unable to keep up with weekly writing. Between my day job, a family emergency, other responsibilities, and editing volume 1, I have no time to keep up with NIU weekly updates. I could quit my job or stop writing the book, but that leaves me with no money (and in one case, irate parents.) The other two options are either to delay future story posts until I have a buffer again (minimum is five) or let a dip in quality and words per chapter occur. I don’t think either option is a good one, but the first one is, in my opinion, significantly better. Please understand.

Track 28: Anime Beauty/Anime Psycho

“Jacobs-san,” Hiro asked, “Does my ancestor have any reason to suspect you’d know where The Architect is?” I nodded, but didn’t elaborate. In the dim red light, I could see Hiro’s eyes narrow. “Mmm. I see.” He got up. “Well,” he said, “If you’ll excuse me…” He then called out some orders in Japanese. Two of the guards got up and followed him out, one drawing what was a SIG-Sauer P220 or a Minebea P-9 pistol, the other bringing up a PM-9.

The other six guards took up anti-Jumper positions. Four moved into the corners of the room, drawing their pistols, the ones with underbarrel lights switching them on. The other two stood right next to me. One drew a shotgun with a high-powered light built into the slide and began nervously scanning the room. The other had a Heckler & Koch pistol. He kept it pointed at the floor, rightly realizing he was too nervous to be aiming it.

From far away, I could hear people shouting. Then there was a brief exchange of gunfire. Everything went disturbingly quiet. One of the guards asked something, but he was shushed. We went back to waiting. Occasionally we would hear gunfire in other areas of the castle. It appeared to be getting further and further away, but if it really was Mayu, that meant absolutely nothing.

Eventually, silence reigned again. That didn’t stop any of the guards from lowering their weapons. That was smart of them, but it didn’t save them.

What felt like an eternity later, I was stretching my neck to my left to avoid it seizing up. That was the only reason I saw it.

Suddenly, Mayu was in between the two guards, two green metalic pear-shaped objects in her hands. “Tsukamu!” she called out cheerily as she tossed the objects at the guards standing beside her.

Recognizing what they were, I turned my head to the right, hoping to shield my face from whatever fun contents the grenades were about to vent. There, standing between the guards on the opposite side, was Mayu. She had her shitty five-round revolver and pink VP-70 aimed at their heads. She fired just as the grenades went off. One guard fell sideways, his head blown apart by a three-round burst. He had just squeezed out a few shots where Mayu had been. The other collapsed against the wall, clutching his neck. Blood spurted out between his fingers. Judging by the rate at which it came out, he would be dead by the time he had hit the floor. Heroically, he tried to adjust his aim to where Mayu had been standing.

The guard with the shotgun also had the same idea. However, by the time he began blasting away, Mayu was gone.

I turned to hear the guard at the right of my bed yell something. There was the crunch of the door being kicked open, and the guard fired. At the same time, someone else fired a short burst from an assault rifle. I turned to see Mayu standing in the doorway, aiming down the sights of her HK 417. She adjusted her aim and let off two more bursts. She then moved into the room, making sure her back was to the wall and not the door, and quickly and professionally scanned for hostiles, her usual grin plastered onto her face.

When she was satisfied that everyone was dead, she lowered her gun and gave her big, eye closing smile, bowed, and said “O-jama shimasu!” If you had told me that, from her first appearance, to this cheerful pleasantry, the massacre had taken fifteen seconds, I would have said that sounded too long.

“Jacobs-san,” she said with concern, ejecting the magazine. It was translucent, so I could see that it was not empty. She quickly inserted a new one. As she did so, she said, “You don’t look well.” I stared at her, trying to determine whether or not she was faking the concern. It was hard to tell.

We were interrupted by the sound of gunfire. Mayu paused, turned and asked worriedly, “Nani…?” The gunfire didn’t stop. If anything, it began to increase in volume. Mayu turned back towards me, her usual smile back. “Well, it doesn’t seem like we have too much time to talk.”

“Stop the bullshit,” I murmured. “You know… this isn’t a… good time for… whatever this is. I’ve got… collapsed lung… Defenders or whoever… are coming…”

“So you’ll just have to talk faster, won’t you?” Mayu said in a perky voice, her smile expanding again. As she said this, she took out a wicked-looking switchblade from seemingly nowhere and opened it in a menacing manner.

I laughed. “Experienced torturer… would break me in six months… maybe six days. You don’t even… have six minutes. No knowledge of psychology… no carrot… just a stick.” I laughed. Then began coughing. “You don’t…” I rasped, “…have any reason why…” I gasped for breath, “…I should give you The Architect.”

Mayu froze like a deer in the headlights. It was like something large and unforeseen was barreling straight towards her. “Why… I should be given…” she said. “Ah. Oh dear. It seems like you misunderstand my intentions.” She walked towards me and knelt by my bed. Looking directly into her eyes, I could see that she had that same spark of insanity in her eyes I had seen all too often back at NIU. “I’m not trying to take the Architect. I’m not trying to kidnap… Mubashir, that’s his name, right? I’m trying to prove myself.”

I been staring at her while she said this. “Explain,” I said.

Mayu got up. That’s probably what saved her. There was the pop of a pistol shot and she stumbled back into the wall. The follow-up shots missed her and hit the headboard of my bed. She vanished just as I turned around to look at the shooter.

There, standing in the doorway was Li, holding a P9. Directly behind him was Mayu. She grabbed the arm Li was holding his pistol in and smashed it into the door. “EHHHH?!” she screamed. She then slammed Li’s head against the doorframe. Li collapsed as Mayu began ranting in Japanese. When he was on the floor, Mayu began to slam the heavy iron door into his head over and over again. As she did so, I notice the arm she was gripping the door with was bleeding from the shoulder. The door closed more each time until eventually it was just clanging against the frame.

After a while, Mayu looked down at what she had done. I couldn’t see the mess, but Mayu’s assault on Li had been so vigorous that bits of blood had spattered her face. Her expression of rage froze, a look of panic bubbling just underneath the surface. It was quickly replaced by her standard smile. She walked back into the room, closing the door behind her.

“Anyway,” she said, “You are Christian, right?”

“Jewish,” I said. I stared at the person before me. Was she seriously going to pretend that she hadn’t just beaten a man to death? Could she really just change gears like that? More importantly, did she really think I’d buy the truck driver’s gear change in conversation?

“So,” Mayu said, her face taking on a zealous glow, “if you found the Messiah, would you try to control it or fall at its feet and beg forgiveness for your sins?” I held up two fingers to indicate choice two. I would have said something about maybe not begging for forgiveness, but I wanted to see where she was going with this. Plus, you know, collapsed lung.

Mayu nodded. “See?” she said. “We both have the same goal. To make the world perfect.” Ok, that was a leap of logic, but I’d let it slide. Mostly because speaking hurt. “The person you call Mubashir, or The Architect, is also what you’d call the Messiah.” The evangelical fervor in her voice was reaching a fever pitch, her smile gone. “I am here to be his Herald. I shall find him and expunge my sins at his feet. Then he will fix the world, ending want and suffering.” She smiled at me. It was not her normal smile, all mask-like and plastic. It was much more disturbing. She then held out her hand, offering me to take it. “Tell me, Jacobs-san, will you help me find Mubashir? Will you help to make the world perfect?”

I sat there, trying to unpack the various flavors of crazy. There was a lot, and I’d need to defuse it all if I wanted to live. If I said the wrong thing, she would start beating me. Or maybe she’d start cutting into me. I noticed that her other hand was soaked in blood and clutching the knife. I’d have to move fast, because she was looking impatient.

I was saved by what felt like a lead curtain falling down over me. Whatever it was, Mayu felt it more. She doubled over and vomited a mix of blood and something chunky onto my bed. Some of it splashed onto my bare arm and I recoiled. Most of it sloshed off the bed and onto the floor. After the third retching, Mayu looked up. The sick had sloshed over her mouth and her nose was bleeding profusely, but it was her eyes that scared me. The previously clear whites were now turning pink, with a few cuts starting to leak tears of blood.

“They’re coming…” she said. Then she vomited again. Outside the door, I heard muffled shouting. I couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like English.

“Give up…” I said to Mayu. “…can’t get out of… this. You can… survive.” This wasn’t because I cared about her. I just didn’t want whoever came through the door to accidentally shoot me. The last thing I wanted was to die in a room that smelled of gunpowder, blood, excrement and vomit.

Mayu raised her head, glaring at me with enough rage and determination to kill. In what must have been an act of supreme determination, she stood up and aimed her revolver at my heart while pulling back the hammer in one smooth move. Then the door was kicked in, John, Eliza, and someone I didn’t recognize coming in. Eliza was carrying an L1A1 battle rifle, John his Type 89-F, and the third guy seemed to be an SAS operative with some sort of M-4 clone.

“Drop the gun, sunshine,” Eliza said, staring down her rifle’s infrared scope. “I’ve just about ‘ad it with this mess.”

Mayu, her voice cold, simply said, “No.”

“I’m warning you,” Eliza said, “I will put a bullet through your fucking skull…”

“Which will cause my grip to tighten,” Mayu said. “Do I have to explain what would happen then?” Her voice, in what I assume had to be more herculean willpower, returned to its normal bubbly demeanor.

“What do you want?” John asked.

“Mubashir.” Mayu made it sound like the most innocent thing in the world. “You know where he is. I would like to talk to him.”

“We don’t know where…”

“LIAR!” Mayu shrieked. Her finger tightened on the trigger. She took a deep breath and cleared her throat. “I’m sorry for that outburst,” she said. “That was rude. But so is lying.” Her voice was bubbly except for how acidly she said lying. “You know, this has been such a disappointment. I thought for sure you would understand. But if you insist on being so unreasonable, I will have to kill Jacobs-san.”

“We don’t know where Moob is,” John said. “We specifically set it up so we didn’t know in case of situations like this.”

“That’s a shame,” Mayu said. “There’s no point in leaving him alive then.”

“Wait!” Eliza said desperately, lowering her weapon. “We don’t know where he is…”

“Not what I…” Mayu began.

“But we know who’s holding him,” Eliza finished.

“Eliza…” I said. “Not… good…”

“Nate,” Eliza said, “the CIA know their business. If she makes trouble, they’ll smack her down.” She turned to Mayu. “Now come on, lower your gun. There’s no way you can get out of here. You got what you wanted, now come quietly.”

“What about the second-best option?” Mayu asked.

“What’s that?” John asked. Then Mayu vanished. “How…? What…? What?” John sputtered this, lowering his gun. He then sighed and just said, “Fuck me, right?”

 

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Ok, some news. There is some stuff that’s going on. Some of it is job-related. Other bits actually have to do with NIU. I actually am very close to getting NIU self-published. I’m going through edits, then I need to get the cover (I’m paying for it, if you saw my art, you’d understand why,) then I’m going to have to do some forms of marketing. It isn’t going to be something that’s immediate, and it could all go up in flames. Just thought I’d let you know.

Track 27: Tragic Monsters

We had to stop halfway to Kage castle. The driver had pulled over because he was about to pass out. Li and Hiro pulled both him and the navigator into the rear bay with me and the dead Defender operator. The navigator seemed fine until they dropped him. It was then that I noticed he had four holes in his rear plate where his heart was. Judging by how his hastily applied bandage was already soaked red, the driver had several entry wounds in his back just underneath his plate and some exit wounds on the other side. I was surprised he had lasted as long as he did.

Li then got into the driver’s seat. That meant both Hiro and I got to sit in the back and watch the time between the driver’s breaths get longer and longer. As Hiro watched, he gripped his mouth, both in thought and to stop himself from saying anything.  His other hand held his sidearm, finger in the trigger guard. I suddenly wondered if he hadn’t made Li drive to avoid the temptation of shooting him.

Eventually, we got to the castle. Hiro and Li had gotten out of the van. For a while, I wondered if they were even going to come back. Then eventually someone got back in and drove the van into what felt like an underground area. When it stopped, Hiro opened the door, revealing what looked like a loading bay. Four Defenders opened the door and grabbed my stretcher. Hiro began walking down with them, chatting with them all the way.

For a second, I wondered why he was going with them. Then I noticed how tired they all looked. I also remembered how many Defenders I’d killed recently and that I hadn’t been the only one killing them. They may have been running low on manpower.

We were eventually led into a room that was a cross between a feudal dungeon and medical facility. That didn’t augur well for me.

Using a knife, they ripped off my clothes, patted me down for subdermal implants, inspected my mouth and anus, then ran several detectors over me. Then, when they were satisfied that I had nothing inappropriate I could literally pull out of my ass, they put me in a surgical gown and strapped me to the bed. They then hooked me up to an oxygen mask to help my lung heal.

There was nothing to do after that except to stare at the wall. At least I couldn’t hear news about the ongoing Dragon’s Teeth that would give me an ulcer to match my collapsed lung. Of course, that didn’t stop me from worrying about what was going on. It was all so stupid. Here we were, killing people over a single time-traveling Parahuman when we could be doing something to stop the real threat.

I waited. And waited. Due to how boring it was, I was waiting a long time. Then the door opened. A man walked in and started to inspect me. I remembered him. He was the German coroner who had investigated the bodies dumped around Kage keep.

“Hey,” I said, “Long time no see.”

“Ah, yes,” the doctor said, “I remember you. I would like to apologize in advance, I have very little experience working on the living.”

“Are you going to operate on me?” I asked as he began inspecting my chest. “Because that wasn’t very comforting.”

The doctor held up his hands to quiet me and then continued checking my body. Mostly it was just checking my chest. Finally, he said, “No. But if you keep living this lifestyle, young man, you will end up on my slab.” He stood up. “I am going to go back to your English friends. Is there anything you would like me to tell them?”

“Maybe like where I am?” I suggested. “Y’know, slip them a map with a big red dot that says ‘Nate’s here?’”

The coroner laughed. “That doesn’t sound like something I can do. I am supposed to be keeping neutral, you know?”

“Speaking of third parties,” I asked, “did you hear anything about Bai Feng? She’s… well, she might not be a friend anymore. She was helping the Defenders drag me away when her brother shot her.”

“She must be with you,” the coroner said. “If she was with the English, from what you tell me, they’d be using her as leverage.”

“She didn’t come back with us,” I said. “Trust me, I was there.” This provoked a coughing fit. My question now wasn’t whether or not Bai was free. It was if she was still alive. I was… sad. I never really liked her, and she had never really liked me. Still, we had a lot of shared experiences. Of course, I was writing her off early. She might have somehow escaped.

“You really should stop talking,” the coroner said. “It’s going to be quite hard to recover if you don’t shut up.” I was about to respond to that, then shut up. “Good,” the coroner said. “You’re learning. I’m going to suggest that they give you some painkillers.”

“Noted,” a voice said. I looked up. Hiro and several armed Defenders walked into the room. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m just going to talk to him, and these guys are just going to make sure he doesn’t leave.” The coroner looked at me, handcuffed to the bed and hooked up to an oxygen machine. He then looked at the three Defenders with knockoff single-stack SIG-Sauers and raised an eyebrow. “You haven’t been the one chasing him around the Prefecture for the last week,” Hiro said. He sounded extremely tired. “Go, you have a lot of things to tell Blackmoor-Ward-sama.”

One of the Defenders escorted the coroner out. Hiro began pacing for a while. Then he said, “You do realize you’re in trouble, right?”

“Where’s Bai?” I asked. Ok, more like mumbled.

“What?” Hiro asked, understandably not hearing me. He leaned in closer and when I repeated myself, he said, “We have no idea. That, and your concern, honestly lends some credibility to Li’s theory.” I stared at him. Noticing my look, Hiro said, “Yes, I know. He’s insane. Was he always this crazy?” I shook my head.

“Anyway,” Hiro said, still pacing and making nervous motions with his hands, “before she escaped, I honestly agreed with Blackmoor-Ward-sama. My ancestor is a human being. A human being who gave up a life for the Defenders of Fuji. It is not her fault it changed while she was gone. I mean, if the council had decided to… to retire her, I wouldn’t have defied them. Yet… there was a difference.”

He paused. I motioned for him to continue. He shook his head and said something in Japanese. One of the words sounded like “television.” He took deep breath. “Are you sure,” he asked slowly, “that there is no information you have to The Architect’s whereabouts? No ways to narrow down the search?” I remained silent. “You don’t have to tell me where the Architect is, just… do you know what it looks like? Or if it could be described as a he or she? What ancient traps protect it? Hell, you could just tell me if you have a way of finding out more.”

I decided to see if I could give him my best “Why should I tell you?” face. At this point, I didn’t give a shit about Charlotte or Mayu, but I did care about Mubashir. The guy had risked his life for me, delaying people who wanted to kill me. Well, technically, he was immortal, so he just risked some minor inconveniences. Still, I owed him.

“You don’t speak Japanese, do you?” Hiro asked. I shook my head. “Then the video wouldn’t change your mind. Except maybe the last part.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll just summarize. After all, I’m the guy who was monitoring her first debriefing.”

I froze. The other Defenders became much more attentive. Hiro laughed. It was the kind of laugh that was less about mirth and more about releasing tension. “Yeah, pretty cool right? I get to watch my ancestor talk about how she spent the past five hundred years. Well, for her, it wasn’t five hundred years. They lost track at a thousand, and that was when they got their first revolver. You see, according to her, time there would slow down compared to our world if there were more people. If someone died, time would accelerate for a little bit.”

“Wait,” one of the Defenders said, “if time worked like that, wouldn’t they die from starvation?”

“Apparently,” Hiro said, “that wasn’t really a problem. At least, if you took what she said at face value. However, she mentioned that they did feel hunger and thirst. Maybe that contributed to the massacre.” He paused for a moment, then said, “You see, some of the bodies were… infected by something, of course. But the rest, the majority died to conventional means. Mayu’s explanation to these were usually reasonable, but… once in a while we would get some inconsistencies. Inconsistencies that could only mean she was lying.

“It was when we got to the sensei sent with them that she snapped. You’ve been with her more than any of us. Surely you’ve noticed how disturbingly happy she always is. That smile is a mask, and an obvious one. But when we talked about the sensei, it began to slip. Her smile remained, but you could see the panic.”

“I know…” I rasped, “…that part of her.” I paused to get my breath again. “Did… you see what… happens when she loses it?” The painkillers had finally worn off, and I was finally being smarter about speaking. I did it because I wanted to test if I could speak in short bursts without pain and maybe get some information.

“Yes,” Hiro said. “In fact, when one of the guards mentioned how revered the sensei was before he went into the pocket dimension, she… flipped out? Is that how you say it? Anyway, the person who praised the sensei was killed instantly, one guard is still hospitalized, and three others were injured.”

“Flipped out…” I said, “…is right. Just… gave her wrong colored pencils.” That last burst was way too ambitious, and I struggled not to cough again.

“Wait,” one of the guards asked, “she killed someone over the wrong colored pencil?”

I shook my head. “Injured,” I whispered.

“But you are not surprised.” Hiro said. “May I ask why you helped her?” I shrugged. I wasn’t exactly sure, other than that she had already escaped and I didn’t really want to argue that much with Charlotte while Eliza was still there.

We sat and stared at each other for a while. None of us said anything. I think the Defenders were waiting for me to speak. That would be a long time, as I had come to the conclusion that I would not hurt myself to tell them anything they didn’t know. Then there was a distant thump. Dust fell out of the walls and the lights flickered.

Hiro’s phone beeped. “That was server one.” He looked up from the phone, a look of panic on his face. “We’re vulnerable until server two and three pick up the slack.” He looked at my confused expression. “We have a server for each section of the castle. If one goes down, the workload changes to the other two. We lose some features like automated threat detection and other features get slower.” I nodded, mentally thanking him for that bit of information.

“Well,” one of the guards said, “we still have the other two. That should…”

There was another explosion, much closer this time. This time, the lights went out permanently. After a few seconds, red back-up lights came on. “That,” Hiro said, “was server three.”

 

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Track 26: Giving Up

“Well,” I said, eyeing the Taser warily, “If you have a stretcher you can carry me out on, there’s no reason I can’t come with you.” My breath was extremely shallow and it kind of hurt for me to speak. There were also a lot of long pauses.

“So the chatter was right for once,” Hiro said. He stood up, and gave an order in Japanese. Three of the Defenders slung their rifles behind their back. Two of them broke open a stretcher while the third waved a metal detector wand over me. Hiro, meanwhile, stood back and opened up a cellphone.

“What do you mean, ‘the chatter was right for once?’” I asked. “How do you not know not…” I began coughing.

“Stop talking,” Li said contemptuously. “We need you alive.”

The Defender who had been scanning me with the wand called out that I was clean. At least, I assumed he did, because the two who had been setting up the stretcher picked me up and placed me on it, then proceeded to flex-cuff me to it. The plastic dug into my wrists. Then they used the standard straps that, as well as preventing me from escaping, would also keep me from falling out. They then picked up the stretcher and we began to move out of the office building.

The office building was pretty standard. As we moved, one of the Defenders carrying me said, somewhat bitterly, “You realize, none of this had to happen.”

“Yep,” I said. “I told Charlotte…” I paused for coughing. “But she just had to make the… dumbest plan.” Seriously, why the hell couldn’t we have just left the country? What the hell was Charlotte thinking? I couldn’t really communicate due to the collapsed lung and tied hands.

“So,” Hiro said, “you don’t have any love for my ancestor?” I nodded my head. I mean, I did think that the people who had wanted to pop her as soon as she had gotten back had been a little premature, but I recognized she was severely disturbed. Finding her and neutralizing her (temporarily or permanently, right now I was pretty flexible about that) could only be a good thing. Hiro continued. “Then tell me where she went. This can all be ended with only one more life.”

“Don’t know,” I said. “Goals were incompatible… she fucked off. That’s probably how…” I broke down in coughing again, “…how your first chopper was blown up.”

“Liar,” Li said. “I refuse to believe you just let her get away.”

“I believe him,” Bai said.

“I do too,” Hiro said. “They did not have enough manpower to fight us and secure a prisoner. Plus, my ancestor was deemed highly obsessive by the psychologist.” He looked at me, and I got the idea that he was contemplating something. “Now, Jacobs-san, what did you say your disagreement was about?”

I pretended that I had also been deafened by the recent gun battle. It wasn’t as big of a stretch as it normally would be, seeing as how I’d been in a gun battle where I’d been firing one of the loudest guns I had ever used. That reminded me that I needed to get a way to reduce the Maccabee’s noise. That probably would have been a better use of time then the dual-belt-fed MG.

The door opened and we began to move into a parking lot. I noticed that there were a few Defenders pulling security. I noticed that the Defenders tended to use either Type 89 assault rifles or what seemed to be Hecker and Koch HK 416s and 417s, usually with holographic sights, lasers and flashlights. They also all looked extremely tired. I felt briefly proud having led these guys on such a wild goose chase. Then I realized they had finally caught me and probably hated my guts.

The parking lot had an interesting feature. Around the parking lot (which was empty except for two vans,) a small wall ran around the lot. If an average person ran around it crouched, they could be concealed. I wasn’t sure how much protection it offered, but it was there. Why did I notice it, you ask? Well, first off, it was an odd thing. Second, a bunch of people had just popped up from behind the walls.

They were extremely hard to see, partly because it was dark, partly because they were shining lights directly at us. However, they had set up in a sort of T-shape pattern, and, judging by the sudden severe case of acne the Defenders had sprouted, they were armed. Instantly, a variety of English, Scottish and Welsh voices began calling out things like “SAS! DROP YOUR WEAPONS!”

“No,” Li said, and suddenly, something hard and metal was pressed to the side of my head, “you put down your weapons.”

“Well,” a dangerously pissed Cockney voice casually commented from behind the wall to my left, “this is quite a weird definition of neutral, innit Bai?

“Eliza?” Bai asked. “You’re here?”

“Yeah,” Eliza said. “I’m ‘ere alright. And I’m quite surprised to see you.”

“And we’re surprised to see you,” Hiro said. I noticed that he had maneuvered so the people ambushing him couldn’t see his hands. I could, and he was fiddling with something in his pocket. “You had to have some sort of warning we had beaten you.”

“And we’d like to know how you got here first,” Eliza said. “Life’s full little disappointments. Now put Nate down. Gently.”

“You won’t open fire,” Li said. “You didn’t come out all this way just for Jacobs just to get a bullet in his brain or for him to find out what happens when a person with a collapsed lung is dropped.”

Eliza didn’t order the SAS operatives to drop the weapons. I don’t know if that was because she wasn’t allowed, if she was bluffing in hopes of intimidating them, or if she was more pissed at Bai then she was protective of me. Finally, she asked, “Bai… why? Just why?”

“We owe the Defenders,” Bai said. “They helped us when…”

“I would’ve helped,” Eliza said, her voice cracking with emotion. “I would’ve come even if everyone else’d told me to fuck off and leave you. You do know that, right?”

“And you know,” Hiro said, “that you attacked us first. You set something that should never have seen the light of day free.”

“First off,” Eliza said, “You’re talkin’ about a person, not some fuckin’ cursed artifact. Second, I wasn’t talking to you, you git.”

“Heyyyy…” I said, “Maybe we can make a deal? Like set me on the ground… gently, very gently, and Eliza lets you drive off?” That was quite painful to say, but at that point I thought it was necessary. “I mean, that way, everyone gets what they want. You guys get to leave, and I’ve already told you all I could.”

“Which was nothing,” Hiro said.

“Exactly,” I said. “The only way I’m useful to you is exchange. This is the time to do that.” I looked at Hiro as I said that. He was considering it, and seemed very receptive.

“Wait,” Li said, “this seems like too good a deal.” He looked… suspicious.

“Honestly,” Bai said, “It’s the best deal we’ve got and…”

Now, before I tell you Li’s response, I need to say a bit about Bai. As soon as she had heard the SAS and seen their lasers and lights, she had aimed her Glock in the direction of the SAS. Her hand was on the trigger, even squeezing it slightly. Her safety was also off. Having gone through the same training, that meant she was willing to fire.

“You…” Li said. “You set us up.”  He then shifted his aim from my head to Bai.

My breath caught. Oh my God, I thought to myself, this guy is insane. Of the many things that had been drilled into our heads during Hell Semester, gun safety was one of them. If you pointed a weapon at something the instructors didn’t want you to destroy, the best case scenario was a grueling forced march, then grueling calisthenics, then skipping the next meal. The worst case scenario was being shot by Campus Security. It didn’t matter whether or not your weapon was loaded, you were not allowed to treat it like a toy. If Bai had sold Li and the Defenders out to Eliza, the gun would be pointed at the ground.

Bai began protesting in Chinese, but Li shouted something back. “Oi!” Eliza yelled, “Put down the fuckin’ gun! I mean it!” The Defenders whose faces I could see were eyeing each other nervously. Hiro, on the other hand, suddenly became extremely calm. He muttered something in Japanese. Underneath Bai and Li’s argument and Eliza’s shouted warnings to calm down (which wasn’t helping,) I made out the word “San.” That meant, if I recalled correctly, three.

He then began counting slowly. “Ichii… nii… san.” Then he took something out of his pocket and rolled it right underneath my stretcher. It was a grenade. Fuck me.

“Grenade!” I heard someone yell. Then the grenade burst into smoke. I tried not to breathe but that was not really an option, due to how short of breath my collapsed lung made me. I breathed in the smoke. Luckily, it wasn’t designed to be harmful. It was just smoke. Unfortunately, it wasn’t oxygen or anything else I needed. That gave me the unpleasant sensation of breathing in and not getting enough of the stuff I needed. I was choking and coughing, which was intensely painful.

Of course, the smoke had been like a starting gun. Everyone began firing at once, or at least in seemed that way. The people carrying me also began hurrying into the van. As soon as my shoulders were in the van, I heard the person carrying the stretcher near my upper body gasp and I felt myself drop. I looked behind me. The Defender carrying that end was lying on the ground, the pavement he was lying on slowly turning red, a stunned look on his face. From what I could see through the fog, there weren’t many Defenders still standing. One even dropped while I was looking.

I then heard a thump of someone getting in the van with us. I looked back in the van. On the side that was hard to see was Li. He was the one who had just got in, and he was reloading a Makarov. On the other was Hiro. He was firing a SIG one-handed and gripping onto my stretcher with the other.

I looked behind me. The other Defender who had been moving my stretcher had set me down and was now returning fire with his rifle, his gun so close to me that I was afraid the bullets might veer off and hit me. He was promptly hit by a burst of fire and slumped down over my legs. Something wet and sticky began to cover my pants and the smell of shit, piss and blood began to fill the van as well as the smell of gunpowder. Over the din, I could somewhat make out someone with a Scottish accent calling out “Cease fire! Cease fire!” I prayed someone would listen to him.

In response, Hiro yelled to the people in the front seats of the van. It must have been something like “Get us out of here!” because there was a second of wheel spin and then the van began moving out of the parking lot like a bat out of hell. Just before we exited, I heard a thump on the side of the van. Then a man in full body armor and a ski mask lunged for my stretcher. Before I could decide whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing if he caught it, he had missed and Li and Hiro had opened fire.

The van had made a handbrake turn, so I couldn’t tell if they had hit or if the SAS operator had escaped. The turn, however, revealed another operator with an MP-5 pointed at the ground. He hesitated, seeing me.

Li and Hiro did not. I heard them fire at the rapidly disappearing operator and saw him go down. I suddenly realized that a rescue attempt had just been made on my behalf, it had failed, and people had died because of it. I was unsure how that felt, other than that it didn’t feel good.

Hiro, meanwhile, turned to Li. “We,” he said dangerously, “are going to have to talk.”

 

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Track 25: Lying on the Floor

After a few tranquilizers and pain killers, I was lying on my side on a bunch of blood-stained plastic garbage bags. I still hurt, but whatever I had been shot up with was so good that I didn’t care. To celebrate this rather nice feeling, I began singing a song about sweaters and the unraveling thereof that played a lot on a local Alt Rock station. It was a terrible rendition, sung wheezily with long pauses in odd places when the pain got too much for the painkillers to block out. At the time, though, I thought it was great. Not even someone asking, “Can’t we just knock him out?” could convince me otherwise.

I eventually came to my senses somewhat. Key word being “somewhat.” I muzzily said, “Heyyy… this isn’t the farmhouse…”

“We told you,” Hirosama said, “we’re in an abandoned industrial office park.”

“You did?” I asked, then began coughing. I looked around. I suddenly realized I was lying on my side in what appeared to be a reception area. My shirt and vest were off and I was wearing an oxygen mask.

“Is he lucid?” Jen asked, coming in through the door. Her mask was pushed up over her face, but apart from that, she was still in costume. “Or is he still high?”

“The two aren’t mutually exclusive…” I wheezed. I giggled. That hurt like hell, but I was so high, I didn’t give a shit. “Hey… does everything like crappy phone speakers… or is it just me?”

“Ugh,” Jen said, “you’re having a bad reaction to the meds, aren’t you?”

“Naw…” I said. “This isn’t bad. Like, I literally don’t give a shit.” I giggled, then coughed in pain. “It’s like magic.” I then began humming another song.

“Can we give him something stronger?” Kaori asked wearily. “He’s going to blow his lung. Again. And he’ll have driven me insane in the meantime.”

Jen groaned and sank into a waiting room chair. I noticed that the gloves were wet. “Ugh,” she groaned, burying her face in her hands, “what the hell did I do to deserve this?” She raised her head. Her face was covered with a sticky red liquid. “Ok,” she said, “we can’t leave him here. We’re going to have to move him.”

I suddenly realized that the liquid staining Jen’s faces was blood. Probably mine. That sobered me up extremely quickly.

“We can’t move him.” That sounded like John. His voice came from behind, so I turned around. A desk was in the way. I guess I wasn’t as sober as I thought, because for a horrible second, I thought he had been turned into a desk. Trust me, that’s possible. Just as I figured out that John was just behind the desk, he said, “Look, none of us were doctors. It was a fucking mistake to move him out of that van without a stretcher.”

“Then what are we going to do with him?” Jen asked.

“Leave me,” I said.

“Unacceptable,” Jen said.

“Yeah,” John said. “Remember rule number one of combat tactics? No heroics.”

“This isn’t heroics,” I said. “If they find you, and I’m traveling with you, it’d be another shootout and I’d probably die.”

“They won’t find us again,” Lydia said. Everyone turned to look at her and Andrew. They quailed. “Well,” Lydia admitted, “it’d be highly improbable.”

“But if I stay here,” I said, “and someone finds me… well, I’m not in any shape to fight, and I’m pretty useful alive.”

“You know,” John said, “we could split up. Some of us remain behind to guard you…”

“And basically be sitting ducks if the police or Defenders or Dragon’s Teeth show up.” I paused. “Wait, did I tell you that the Dragon’s Teeth are here? Because I had a really weird conversation with Jeong and Richard.” At Richard’s name, Jen froze like I had insulted her.

“Who?” Lydia asked. I heard Kaori make a noise suggesting she didn’t know.

“Uh…” John said, “If you’re talking about who I think you’re talking about…”

“Yeah, they’re dead,” I said. “That’s how they were able to contact me. Like, the Deets have this psionic network and…”

“HE’S DEAD!” Jen yelled. “SHUT UP!” Everyone stared at her. “Sorry,” Jen said. “But dead is dead, and if they can come back, they should either come back immediately, or leave me the hell alone!”

“You… you ok?” I asked.

Jen sighed. “No,” she said. “I’m not ok, I never was ok, and I never will be. I hate my life, my father killed my brother, my best friend was killed by her own family, the first person I ever tried to save cut her own throat right in front of me… And now the dead are talking to me. Did Richard say anything to you?”

“Wait,” I said, “you know him?”

“We bonded over having psychotic family members,” Jen said. “It was before we came to NIU. His sister was my best friend, she was dating my brother, and she’s… she was one of the best people I have ever met. Needless to say, her parents and my father wanted her dead. Anyway, what did Richard have to say to you?” Her slight emphasis on you conveyed how rude she thought it was that Richard had contacted me and not her.

After I explained the entire conversation I had had with the two ghosts, John groaned. “So, basically, we’ve been living with Thana or whatever the Dragon’s Teeth call her or it right next to us? Fuck me, right?”

“But this could all be Nate’s drug dreams,” Andrew said. “How do…”

“I’ve been seeing them too,” Jen said. “They’re really full of themselves.”

“You guys need to get out of here,” I said. “They’ll find us.” I paused to get my breath again. “Only way we survived last time was to get mobile. Can you even get me to the car?”

Jen looked grim. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I took a few classes at NIU in first aid because… I know how my life works. I also know you need a real doctor.”

“Ok,” I said. “Take my weapons and get out of here.”

“But…” Jen protested.

“Look,” I said, “if they come while you’re gone, the second-best scenario is to get captured, not die in some heroic last stand. Not having any weapons would aid in that. I’ve given Charlotte as much as I could, she doesn’t think I’ve done enough, then she doesn’t have to pay whatever price the Defenders of Fuji are asking.”

“Fine,” Jen said, “but you better be here when we get back.”

“Will do…” I said. Even in my drug-addled state, I knew better than to move. The pain was deadened, but it was still noticeably there. When everyone left, I realized I had forgotten two important things. First, I had forgotten to request additional painkillers when the ones I was on wore off. Second, I had forgotten to ask for some sort of entertainment. Now, I was in a boring room with increasing pain, unable to move, with my only source of entertainment wondering what the hell the Dragon’s Teeth were doing.

So, that’s what I did, because I needed an ulcer to go with my collapsed lung. There was so many things that they could be doing. I knew they were in Russia, Germany, France and India, but had no idea how they were doing. Also, did they really think that the world would just sit back and watch? I mean, I get that Russia had been really straining its relationship with the rest of the world, but it still was a country that did business with everyone. India also did business with everyone, but had much better neighbors and was a UNIX member. Germany, due to an influx of Grenzefrontier, had NATO forces and was also a UNIX member. France also was a NATO and UNIX member. In fact, it was where the headquarters for UNIX was.

In fact, all of these countries were the exact opposite of North Korea in terms of industrial development, global relations, and military modernization and strength. These weren’t countries that existed at the whim of some superpower. Hell, one of those countries was the kind of country that propped up psychotic dictators. Plus, unless they were really dedicated to avoiding pictures, every single piece of their tech and a lot of their tactics would be recorded.

Then there was the fact that it had taken so long for them to take down North Korea. North Korea, a backwards country struggling to industrialize, where the people starved, mostly due to the corruption of their leaders, had held out against the Deets for at least a year. That did not speak well to their ability. Either that, or they were just testing things. That, however, seemed like a huge waste of resources. Plus, North Korea’s one friend was China. China had a multi-million man army that could have crashed across the border and kill every single person the Dragon’s Teeth had sent in.

Of course, there were still a bunch of Dragon’s Teeth running around the city. Plus, I was possibly the first to have killed a type of Deet soldier called a Berserker. I hoped they weren’t vindictive enough to risk a few soldiers to kick me in the chest and/or torture me.

Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. “Who’s there?” I asked.

“It’s me,” a female voice with a slight Chinese accent said.

“Bai!” I said happily. “Great to see you!”

“And me,” a voice said sullenly.

“And Li!” I said, my happiness now faked. “How… wonderful.”

“Are you armed?” Bai asked as she and her twin brother edged cautiously into the room. I noticed that their hands were on their guns, ready to draw them out of their holsters.

Suddenly, despite the pain meds, alarm bells were ringing in my ears. “No…” I said as they entered the room. “I thought Jen would have told you that.”

“Jennifer?” Li asked. “Jennifer Kagemoto? What is her involvement in all of this?”

As he said this, I heard a voice say something in Japanese. Four men in surgical masks, dress shirts, combat backpacks, khakis and Kevlar moved quickly, calmly and quietly into the room. Each of them carried assault rifles with holographic sights and laser/flashlight combos. I could feel the red dots on my chest and head like little bugs crawling all over.

Instantly after, Hiro Nakashima came walking in, his arm dangling by his side and clutching a Taser. “Kagemoto-san,” he said, “has apparently been a pain in my organization’s ass for the past year.” He squatted down near me. “And you, Jacobs-san, have only magnified that pain.” He extended his arm until the less-lethal device was almost touching my chest and asked, “Do I need to use this, or will you come quietly?”

 

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Track 24: Deet Barz

I fell onto the ground, face first. As I struggled to breathe, I heard John, Bushido and Kuniochi open up. I then heard Jen say “Shit…” Hands gripped me, turning me on my side. “Well, at least it went clean through. What the hell did they shoot at you?”

I tried to list off a few suggestions like armor-piercing .338 Lapua, but instead, all that came out was a gasping sound. “Shut up, you idiot,” Jen said, moving into my field of view. “You have a collapsed lung.” She turned her head. “Anyone have some saran wrap?”

“Why the fuck would we have saran wrap?” one of the hackers asked.

“It’s in Nate’s pack,” John said. “Hurry up, I’m pretty sure that chopper is coming back.”

“Right,” Jen said, fiddling with my pack, “Ok. Tatsu, Dokutsu, get to that garage and get us a car. Preferably one that was made before the Nineties and has a lot of floorspace. Bushido, help me get him into cover.”

The act of picking me up caused me such an intense amount of pain that I blacked out. When I came to, my vest and pack were off and I was behind a car. Someone had lifted my shirt up and the entry wound in my back had been wrapped up with saran wrap like a sandwich. There was also the sound of a chopper overhead and John firing. I then heard the crack of a gunshot and John cry out in pain. Then there was the sound of something large and metal snapping apart. The chopper then began to sound a bit strange, and something large hit the ground.

“Listen,” Jen said, her masked face suddenly looming into mine. Behind me, I heard the chopper crash. “I’m about to shove a metal straw into a hole in your chest. It may hurt.”

Funnily enough, the actual insertion of the tube wasn’t the painful part. Yeah, it hurt, but Jen’s attempts to secure it in place with surgical glue hurt a lot more. I suddenly realized that she was turning me into a human blow-up doll.

“Yo, Driver!” Kuniochi asked, “You ok, man?”

“Fucker got me in the arm,” John said. “Guy’s in a fucking helicopter going what, a hundred twenty miles an hour? Plus the little shit’s three or four stories up. And he goes fucking two for two.” There was a pause, during which I assumed John was trying to get up. “Fffuck that hurts…” he groaned.

“He sounds fine,” Jen said. “Bushido, throw him a bandage.” She turned back to me. “Damn it, this thing is too small.” She laughed. “If I was a terrible person, I could make a lot of penis jokes right now.”

I groaned, as I had been thinking of those as well and knew that none of them could be good. If the groaning hadn’t hurt like hell, I would have attempted an emergency “That’s what she said.” Instead, I kind of passed out again.

I woke up in a room filled with mist. Richard was bracing a door with his back. Someone was also there, holding the door. He turned, and I recognized him as Jeong by his charred face. “He’s here,” Jeong whispered.

“The fuck?” Richard said. “How does that work?”

“I don’t know,” hissed Jeong, “Also, shut up! Do you want them to hear you?”

“What’s going on?” I asked. I looked around. “Oh fuck me, am I dead?” That, honestly, was the most logical explanation to what I was seeing. Richard and Jeong, after all, were both dead and I doubted they had ever met in life.

“Unless you know something we don’t,” Richard said, “I doubt it. You’re probably just asleep.”

“We are,” Jeong said, “but you might have noticed we’re a bit more active.”

“About that,” I said, “I mean, the ‘knowing something you don’t’ thing… I was recently kind of shot in the lung. It’s being treated, but…”

“God fucking dammit!” Richard said, hitting the wall in frustration.

“Shut. Up.” Jeong growled. He then turned back to me and said, “Listen, Nate, there’s been something weird going on. People who are dying… aren’t going away anymore. It’s hard to explain. We definitely are dying, but some of us can visit.”

“Well,” I said, remembering the previous visits from supposedly dead people I’d experienced, “I’ve noticed that.” I paused. “Does knowing someone make it easier to appear in front of them?”

“Slightly,” Richard said. “The bigger factor, though, is whether or not Dragon’s Teeth are around. Knowing you is like having better tires. Having Dragon’s Teeth around is like having a bigger engine.”

“But I first saw you when you were in Worcester!” I said, “The Dragon’s Teeth were only in North Korea at the time. And if they weren’t, they’d be preparing for Russia or India or France…”

Richard laughed. “Well, apparently they had at least two hundred to send to Worcester.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I said, “There were two hundred Dragon’s Teeth soldiers in Worcester? They could spare that much for a city of that little tactical and strategic importance in a country they weren’t even planning on invading?”

“What makes you think they aren’t planning on invading the US?” Jeong asked.

My blood ran cold. “How… how many are currently in this city?” I asked.

“Before you started blowing shit up?” Richard said. “More.” I felt myself go gray. “But after you rescued Jen? The Japs started looking for shit and finding it. Mexican Cartels, Yakuza, Russain Mafia, Triads, petty street criminals, spies, radical Islamitists, radical Parahumans, Commies… Even a few Dragon’s Teeth.”

“So,” I said, “I may have stopped an invasion of Japan?” I suddenly began to feel a lot better about the chaos I’d been causing. Maybe I’d even gotten a good chunk of them killed.

“That’s not what we need to talk about,” Jeong interrupted. “The thing is, the Deets have this… network. In their minds. We, that is, us dead people, think it’s been pulling our souls into it somehow.” I must have made a pretty impressed holy shit face because Jeong said, “Yeah. There’s a lot to unpack in that statement. There seems to be two networks: one goes in a pretty clear path. Soldiers are on the bottom, more senior people are at the top.”

“And the other?” I asked.

“It’s a web,” Richard said. “Every Dragon’s Teeth soldier is equal, every Dragon’s Teeth soldier is connected to every other one. It’s beautiful.” He shook his head. “The other’s just straight lines with dull colors, but this one… I’ve never seen anything like it. The lines bend and twist beautifully, they grow and shrink, and there’s colors I didn’t even know existed…”

“But there are still patterns to this one,” Jeong said. “Look.” The walls except for the door suddenly… disappeared? Began to display?… what seemed to be a ring of white light, but on closer inspection were many small lights, each a different color with yet with billions of still differing colors connecting them to each other dot.

As I looked, I noticed that the dots and their connecting bits were… warped. They seemed to be leaning towards a secondary ring. This secondary ring formed a ring of pure white light with only one of the colored dots. In the center was pure darkness. I suddenly realized I was looking at a black hole.

“Jesus…” I said when I had somehow made sense of what I was seeing. “That’s… that’s the complex psionic network.” Complex seemed to be too tame a word to describe what I was seeing. The same could be said of words like awesome or beautiful. Yet something about the vision seemed to be self-explanatory. I mean, the image before me was somehow explaining itself like a teacher carrying out a lesson. However, there was one thing I did not get.

“What’s the big black thing?” I asked, pointing to the black hole.

“That,” Jeong said, “is where they throw the souls of people who aren’t Dragon’s Teeth.”

“They seem to worship it,” Richard said. “They’re a fucking cult. They say it speaks to them.”

“Where is it?” I asked. “Like, geographically?” They turned to look at each other. “I mean, each of those dots of light is a Dragon’s Teeth soldier. You can figure out where they are. Can’t you do the same thing with that?”

“We think…” Jeong said, “that whatever it is, it spends most of its time at NIU.”

“Excuse me?” I said. “How can… how can anyone live there with… with… whatever the fuck that is? And it moves?  Something like that should cause cities to… to…”

“To what?” Richard asked. “You have even less of an idea of what it is then we do.”

“To be fair,” Jeong said, “that… thing seems to have some sort of quantum physics type thing where it can be in multiple places at once. Its bulk just seems to usually be centered in NIU.”

I remained silent for a long time, considering the implications of that. Was it something The President had made, or had he somehow bitten off more than he could chew? Of course, considering the size of that thing, those two were by no means mutually exclusive.

I was interrupted by Richard saying, “Uh, hey y’all, we seem to be getting closer.” He was right. We were hurtling towards the main ring of light at incredible speeds.

“We need to leave,” Jeong said. He opened the door, and he and Richard filed through. “Come on, Killer,” he said, “We’ve spent way too long here.”

I got up and followed, but I bounced off an invisible wall. We stared in horror. “Go,” I finally said.

“Wait,” Richard said, “You need…”

“I might be dead,” I said. “I might not wake up. Go.”

“He’s right,” Jeong said. “We need to leave.” Just before he closed the door, he said, “Good luck.”

Not even a second had passed before it burst open. I flew back. As I struggled to get to my feet, the armored figure of the Berserker I had killed in Korea walked in. Just as I was getting to my feet, he kicked my chest. I felt ribs shatter and my lung collapse again. He then grabbed me by my throat and lifted me so I was looking him right in his glowing eye.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “it’s all over now.”

My eyes opened as I let loose a scream. “Shit!” I heard someone say. “His lung is going to collapse again.” Then my lung collapsed again.

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Track 23: SHOT THROUGH THE LUNG

I was about to respond to John when a burst of gunfire hit the Z4. I turned to see that the driver had climbed out the window while I had been dealing with the flanking force. She was lying on her side and seemed to be in shot. “Are you shot?” I asked. She shook her head. “Ok,” I said, “if you can, run. Stay low, take the exit, and keep moving until you find shelter.”

She nodded, but just as she was about to get up, a burst of gunfire hit her car again. She screamed and put her head down. “JOHN!” I yelled. “COVERING FIRE!” We both opened up, hitting where we thought the shooter was coming from. “RUN!” I yelled to the woman. She didn’t need any more urging.

Finding places to aim that wouldn’t hit civilians but would hit whoever was shooting at us was a hard task. The entire road was filled with civilian vehicles, and our attackers didn’t seem to be hesitant to use them as cover. Combined with the fog and rain, identifying targets was pretty much impossible.

“John,” I said, “cover the other side of the road. We need to…” I was interrupted as a massive explosion rocked the overpass we were on. I turned to look at it. Apparently, the flanking force had more explosives than just the one rocket launcher. A small car had found this out the hard way when it had smashed into the back of it.

“Jesus!” John said. On cue, there was a series of smaller secondary explosions. The overpass shook a disturbingly large amount for something that was suspending us high above a concrete surface.

“Make sure no more of those things sneak up behind us to fuck us in the ass,” I said. “I’m going to Bushido and Kuniochi. We need a perimeter and we need it now.”

“Oh hell yeah,” John said. “Get one of them to help me cover the rear.”

I nodded and moved to the sound of Ballpeens firing, making sure to stay in cover. The traffic was backed up farther than I could see. Of course, due to it being a foggy, rainy night, that wasn’t very far. Plus, an eighteen-wheeler had skidded over, forming a sort of blockade. It rose out of the mist like an alien structure. I switched my scope to its thermal mode. There was no other way to see anything except vague muzzle flashes.

As I headed forward, I tried to ignore the crashed cars. The dead were fine, I had seen dead people enough times to realize they didn’t matter anymore, at least during combat situations. The living and obviously fine civilians were emotionally gratifying but tactically worrying. After all, the “uniform” our attackers were wearing was only slightly different from civilian clothing, or some idiot could pick up an abandoned firearm and play hero.

The worst part was the people who were dying. I don’t want to scar you with the details, but if you’re a paramedic with a lot of car accidents in your territory, you can probably fill in the details.

I turned around a station wagon. A man in business casual, raid vest, and a surgical mask was bent over another man in the same uniform lying face-down in the rain-soaked road. The second man had several holes in his back, holes I recognized as exit wounds from a Maccabee’s six-and-a-half millimeter cartridge. He seemed to have dragged himself behind the car, despite the fact that most of one of his lungs was now outside his body. Blood flowed across the tarmac.

The subject checking the downed hostile noticed me at the same time. His Type 89-F was pointed in the air. He lowered it to point at me, but I had already been aiming at him. I fired, twice at his chest and once at his head. I spared a brief moment to look at the blood trail. It led to some kind of M-4 clone (probably an HK 416 or 417) abandoned behind a coupe. I then moved forward and kicked the Type 89 away from the two subjects and moved on.

Eventually, I found one of the hackers crouched behind a car. “Bushido?” I asked as I got behind the vehicle. “That you?”

“Close enough,” the hacker said. “Have you seen my twin?”

It took me a moment to realize that s/he was referring to the person in the matching costume and not a relative. “No,” I said. “I was hoping you’d seen him.”

“Fuck.”

I agreed with Kuniochi. This was not good. I looked up and saw an even worse thing. Four men, three with belt-fed weaponry and one with what looked to be a six-shot grenade launcher were closing in. If they had seen us, I wouldn’t be able to raise my gun in time. “GET DOWN!” I yelled.

Three machineguns began to tear into the car in short, controlled bursts leaving no time for me to pop my head. I had followed my own advice and got behind the wheel underneath the engine block. The problem was that meant Kuniochi had to hide behind a door. I also realized that there was someone inside. Several bullets smashed through the flimsy metal and knocked Kuniochi on her back. Also, a few of the shards of glass were blood-stained.

Before I could worry about Kuniochi, she had raised her Ballpeen and began firing through the thin metal. “DIE!” She yelled. “FUCK THE FUCK OFF!”

“JESUS CHRIST!” I yelled as she began dry-firing, obviously wondering why her gun had stopped working. “STOP WASTING YOUR AMMO, AND TRY TO MAKE DECENT ONE-LINERS!”

My yelling was cut off by a grenade exploding on the roof of the car right in front of me. The shrapnel cut into my face. I was momentarily thankful for buying the scratch-resistant lenses for my glasses. Without them, I would have been blinded! Then the blood started leaking into my right eye.

Meanwhile, the machinegunners behind us were still firing. One bullet came so close that it passed through the sleeve of my sweater, so close it burned me. With a yell of pain, I lifted my arm to my face, just in time to block more shrapnel. The good news was my throat had been saved and my Maccabee took the brunt. The bad news is that my arm was now bleeding profusely and the only thing I owned that could hide injuries with was ruined.

Meanwhile, the car that doubled as our only source of cover was being ripped to shreds. A subject with a shotgun came into view. I fired, he fired. My shoulder was suddenly lacerated. He fell back, a few new holes in his chest. As this happened, a grenade flew through the now-fully shattered windows of our car and landed smack-dab in the center of the one I was facing. From inside that car I began to hear screaming.

I then noticed that the MGs had gone silent. I popped out of cover, still able to hold my gun. There, standing on a panel van, M3 in one hand and Vector in the other, was Jen. Well, she was in costume, so technically Hinomoto Oniko. She was obviously tired, despite the fact that she was wearing a mask and I could barely see her. She jumped down and began walking towards us.

“Damn!” I looked over to around where shotgun-subject had taken a pop. It was Bushido. “This is getting intense.”

Jen’s masked face turned to look at Bushido. “How the hell,” she asked, directing the question to both him and Kuniochi, “did you two think it was a good idea to split up?” I noticed that the visor on Kuniochi’s helmet was cracked. Either car doors were more bullet-resistant than I thought, or her visor was really tough.

“Good question,” I said, “but let’s save that for the after-action report, shall we?” I noticed that I was grabbing my arm. I pulled it away and noticed my hand was now soaked in blood. Ignoring it and the sting from rain falling into my wound, I began to use it to gesture. “Right now, we need to fall back and shore up the perimeter. We’ve left John alone too long.”

We began to head back to the where the Escalade was. I was falling behind, letting Bushido and Kuniochi take point. I should have been moving faster, considering that I was starting to hear gunfire again. Jen noticed this and fell back.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Kuniochi got shot in the face,” I said. “I’d be more worried about her.”

“I have access to her diagnostics,” Jen said. “Perks of our armor. Her brain scan is normal and she doesn’t seem to have whiplash. You, however are wincing like a puppy with a broken leg whenever rain hits your shoulder. That concerns me.”

“I’m good,” I said. “I’m fine.” Jen made a little “I see” noise. “Hey,” I said, “you should have seen me when I took a rifle grenade at Hell Semester.” Jen was unconvinced.

She was about to say something when the stray bullet hit her in the chest. Her armor was so good she only staggered a bit, but we both got to cover. I looked to see that it had come from several white panel vans that were now forming a barricade between us and the nearest exit.

Before I could switch to X-ray or sonar mode on my scope, the line of vans rocked, nearly crushing the people behind them. Dokutsu then got out, firing his Desert Eagle at the vans. He stomped his foot, and one of the vans flipped. Tatsu hurried out after him. She leaned back then forward, like the big bad wolf about to huff and puff.

The idea was probably the same because a cone of fire shot from where I assumed Tatsu’s mouth would be, explaining her lack of gas mask. The fire engulfed the vans and, I assumed, the fuel tanks as well because they began to explode.

“Come ON!” Jen yelled. “We need to get out of here!”

We advanced towards the exit ramp and the burning wrecks. No subjects popped out from the burning wrecks, but we still had someone cover them just in case as we headed down the ramp.

“Look,” Tatsu said pointing to a nearby building as we got to the base of the off-ramp. “That looks like a parking garage. We should be able to find some transportation in there.”

“Good,” Jen said. “We needed to have left half an hour ago.”

“Hey,” John said as we sprinted towards the building, “do you hear that?”

I listened. The whump-whump-whump of helicopter blades was getting louder and louder. “Shit,” I said. “Chopper. Here’s hoping that it just passes…”

There was a thwip and I felt something like a bee sting. Before I could even work out what had happened, I was face down, in extreme pain, and was having trouble breathing. Whatever had just happened was not good.

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