Track 24: Old Friends

From that day forward, I had pretty much decided that leaving the factory was a bad idea. Eliza managed to get my Subaru from the apartment and into the parking lot. I didn’t know how she did it in the midst of all the panicked people.

Speaking of the refugee situation, it seemed to be untenable. People were running east and north in a panicked rush while the armed forces desperately tried to organize. Israel, Iran, and Turkey had gone under, as well as many NATO nations and other allies. The Dragon’s Teeth controlled the air and the sea. What forces we had abroad were either isolated or fighting for their lives. Many people had either given up or were trying to get to Canada.

In fact, in a strange twist of fate, Canada, Mexico, and the other American nations looked like one of the US’s few chances of salvation. When I could turn on the news, all they’d talk about was the coalition that was being assembled and the counterattack they’d lead. I didn’t buy it. The Dragon’s Teeth were probably digging in, and it’d take a lot more than a three-to-one ratio to dislodge them.

Valkyrie was doing the distribution for the weapons and ammo. Occasionally, I’d ask if the people we were equipping were doing what they were supposed to or if they’d started killing each other. Her usual response was, “As far as I can tell? Neither.” Then she’d go back to helping the people load whatever van they’d brought in, and Eliza and I would go back to watching them to make sure they didn’t take anything they weren’t supposed to or go anywhere we didn’t want them. After they were gone, we’d then go back to making the place habitable.

It was one of the times in between visits from crooks converted to teamster duty that we heard the intercom by door sound. I went to the security panel. There, pushing his face into the lens of the intercom camera so much it fish-eyed, was John Marshall’s short beard and close-cropped hair. From another view, I could see he was with Kyle Rockford, a somewhat unassuming, if generically star-quarterback-looking guy waiting behind him. Behind them was an old 90’s era Acura coupe packed full of luggage.

“Nate!” John was saying, somewhat frustrated. “Come on, I know you’re in there.”

“Sorry,” I said, picking up the mic as I wheeled over, trying not to spill the laundry basket full of clean clothes. “I was just trying to get some housecleaning done.”

“Oi!” I heard Eliza shout from somewhere in facility, “‘oo’s  thaAAAGH!” She was cut off by metallic clattering. Then there was a stream of creative cursing.

“I see Eliza’s here as well?” Kyle asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Let me see if I can help, then-”

“No!” Eliza said. “You’re in a bloody wheelchair, y’can’t ‘elp! You let ‘em in like-” There was a thunk that sounded like something metal had hit something fleshy, then the clang of it falling onto the floor. Eliza screamed, more in frustration then in pain.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“I’m FINE!” Eliza said.

After I had let Kyle and John in, we came in to the room Eliza had been attacked in. She was putting pipes back into a cupboard, muttering angrily. “Fuckin’ bloody pipes, bloody cabinets, bloody yanks and their bullshite washing machines. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks!” With a scream, she kicked the wall.

“She’s trying to set up a washer and drier in here,” I said. “I’ve been helping where I can.”

“You can help?” Kyle said. “I’m surprised that you can move on your own.”

That reminded me, I was due for painkillers. But now was not the time to mention that. “It’s no biggie,” I said. “What are you guys doing here?”

“I live in the Midwest.” Kyle said. “Or lived in the Midwest. Then the Teeth rolled in and started shooting everyone.” He’d obviously intended to stop there, but he just had to continue. As he did, his voice became more and more choked up and he began to cry. “They burned most of the houses and dragged people out to the center of town. I managed to hide, but my grandad… he told them I’d died in Iraq when they asked about who I was in the picture… I heard him say it.” By this point he was in tears and had collapsed on the floor. “They shot him,” he said, so choked up from tears I could barely understand. “And while he was dying, they poured gas or something and set the house on fire. I hid in the bomb shelter and then…”

It was there that language failed him. He sobbed and began rocking back and forth. I wheeled over to him and patted him on the shoulder. “Hey,” I said softly. “We’re here. What do you want to do?” I kept repeating that last sentence over and over again until he calmed down.

When he did, he said, in a gasping, post-crying jag voice, “I want to honor my grandparents’ memory. I want to do what I can to stop them.”

“Damn,” I said. “I’m not sure I can help with that. Will killing the bastards suffice?”

John looked at me. “You don’t have a plan?”

“Did you expect us to?” I asked. “Look, you know my area of expertise. Hell, you share at least eighty percent of my skillset. The military isn’t buying my guns, and even if they were, well, what use are small arms going to be against tanks and aircraft?”

“Oi,” Eliza said, looking at me, “D’you need anti-depressants as well as painkillers?”

“Probably,” I said. “Or, like, a bottle of Jack or something.”

“So,” John said, cutting in, “what are you doing?” At my blank look, he said, “You know, about the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“What can I do?” I asked. “At some point, they’re going to start advancing again, and when I do that, I guess I can kill a few of them. Until then, I’ve done all I could and boy, was it not enough.”

“Have you been drinking?” John asked.

“John,” I said, “I’m taking industrial levels of Ox, even though it barely lets me function. If my grape juice is a little elderly, I’d fucking die.”

John nodded. “Ok, fair enough. You got anything to eat?”

“Power Sludge,” I said. “And no, there aren’t any restaurants open that we can reasonably get to.”

The thing I quickly noticed was that certain things we had done to get the place habitable for Eliza and me carried over. The two completely useless fridges, for instance, would probably hold enough food for all of us and the washer and drier (when we got them set up) was more than capable of handling all our demands. Other things like beds were harder to deal with. Eliza and I were sharing a twin-sized mattress, for instance. John and Kyle did not want to share a bed with us or each other.

Around the start of September, Valkyrie came back. The factory was functioning as a living space and occasionally we’d be able to get food that wasn’t awful synthetic glop that looked suspiciously like vomit. That didn’t mean it was great food. So when we let Valkyrie come in through a window, we were all happy to see she was carrying several boxes of pizza.

“Valkyrie!” I said happily. “Where’d you get that?”

“I may be on the up and up,” Valkyrie said, setting down the pizzas, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t have connections. I literally got what might be the last takeout pizzas in Worcester. Plus,” she unhooked a bag from her arm, “some big sodas.”

We began to dig in. After a few slices of cheese pizza (there was only cheese pizza,) I asked, “So, how’s the arm distribution going?”

“Reasonably well,” Valkyrie said. “They haven’t started killing each other and there hasn’t been too much extortion of refugees.”

“Always nice,” John said. Reasonably, he didn’t exactly approve of giving people like Jen scarily effective firearms, many of which were easy to conceal. Yet he didn’t really see any alternatives. Basically, we were in agreement.

“Any sightings of Deets?” Kyle asked. “I’m… a little conflicted on how soon I want to see these guys again.”

Valkyrie shrugged. “Not sure. Jen’s looking, and I’m reasonably sure she’s telling the truth. The others could be, or they could be in the process of cutting deals with them.”

“Any you suspect in particular?” I asked. Valkyrie looked hesitant. “If you say Mai’s playing both ends against the middle, I won’t bite your head off,” I said. “Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jen was playing us. Disappointed, but surprised.”

“You’re right,” Valkyrie said. “Jen will try to use this to get ahead, but she’ll just try to screw the other leaders so that when things calm down she’ll be in a better position. Mai, meanwhile, is going to disappear as soon as the Teeth get into town.”

“Dealt with these fuck eggs a lot, ‘aven’t you?” Eliza asked.

“Oh yes,” Valkyrie said as Kyle and John giggled at “fuck eggs.” “I swear, ninety percent of my job involves talking to these guys and asking them stuff like ‘what did you assholes do now?’ over and over.”

There was a buzz. “Someone’s at the door,” I said, moving to get it.

“Oi,” Eliza said. “You fuckin’ stay there.” She got up muttering darkly about invalids who thought they were well. We sat there as she talked to the person happily. I drank some soda. John and Kyle had their hands on their guns. Valkyrie calmly ate her pizza.

Eventually, Eliza came back into the room, smiling. “Guess ‘oo’s ‘ere!” She said. “Eric an’ ‘is mates!”

“Who?” Valkyrie asked.

“We’ll bring them in,” John said, “you can meet them then.”

They all left hurriedly. Valkyrie raised her eyebrows. “Eric’s a former child soldier from Africa,” I said. “He’s very friendly, but he and the rest of his group would prefer you not ask about their past.” Valkyrie nodded, examining me, as if calculating how much more damage would be done.

When Eric came in, it wasn’t just with Doc, MC Disaster, Ray-Gun and the Monk. Oro and Cross were also there, as well as a lot of other students from NIU’s AMS and Shadowhaven programs. All of them seemed to have some sort of concealed weaponry, judging by the bulges in their clothes, and many of them were chattering excitedly. A few began to reveal their weapons (mostly assault rifles and pistols, but there were also some SMGs, shotguns, sniper rifles, anti-tank rockets, grenade launchers, and belt-fed machine guns,) and unloading them.

“Valkyrie brought us pizza,” John said, “but I don’t think there’ll be enough.”

“Do not worry, my friend,” Eric said, pointing to a Hispanic woman chatting with Eliza and carrying several boxes, “Camilla is also bringing gifts.” He pointed to an Asian man carrying several bags of what appeared to be Mexican food. “So is Bunrouen.”

After I had watched the room slowly became covered in weapon parts, ammo, grenades, what appeared to be bricks of C4 or worse, and people eating junk food and drinking soda and alcohol, I nervously turned to look back at Valkyrie.

Her face did not express amusement.


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Track 23:Is It Just Me?

I don’t really remember what I said about my time fighting the Dragon’s Teeth. I just remember that nobody’s expression changed. I’ll admit, I was just dryly presenting the facts of my visit to Korea and some of their attempts after, but still, the facts should have been pretty riveting. I didn’t know why they were staring at me until one of the mobsters, an elderly man in a suit that was probably expensive, raised his hand.

“So,” he asked in a Boston accent when I called him, “you just go on a stroll to North Korea?”

“As I said,” I mentioned, “I was paid.”

“But you didn’t say by who,” the mobster said. “I kinda wanna know.”

“Is it important?” I asked. “Because if you want to talk to him, he’s not available.” The mobster didn’t say anything in response, but he did tent his hands and stare at me suspiciously. I suddenly realized that he wasn’t the only one. “Look,” I said, in response to his unanswered question, “there’s just some things that are too big for you. Accept it and move on.”

People around the room murmured in a mixture of amusement and shock. Jen seemed to be trying to suppress a headache. Mai was writing in her notebook. Both their retinues seemed somewhat impressed. Valkyrie seemed… annoyed. “Kid,” the mobster said, “Do you, or your friends, know who the fuck I am?”

“I personally don’t,” I said. “But I can tell you right now, you’ll be a lot happier not asking questions about my life’s story.”

“Ok,” the mob boss said, standing up. “I guess I can deal without your guns.” He left. His retinue and several other representatives from other gangs followed.

Another man raised his hand. He was also dressed in a suit, but he seemed to be one of the guards. “So how do we know you ain’t a fed?” He asked. He also had a Boston accent.

“If I was a fed,” I said, “I’d be directing traffic.”

“Did Agent Barton tell you that, or did Agent Hicks?” the junior gangster asked. Instantly, a bunch of the assembled crooks began clamoring. Some walked out, some in more of a panic than others. Others began reaching for their waistbands. “Yeah, that’s right!” the junior gangster said. “Burnie McWheels over there’s been traveling cross-country with clean feds and is being sponsored by a clean cape!”

Valkyrie slammed her axe on the floor again, creating another gust of wind. Judging by the crack it made “Do you want to mouth off, or do you want to listen?” Valkyrie asked.

The room was silenced. The person the mouthy mobster was guarding, a positively ancient man, said, “I think what Junior is trying to say is that he’d like to leave before the cops come.”

“Then go,” Valkyrie said. “Unless things have radically changed, the cops aren’t coming, so you have all the time in the world.” The people who left, which was a good chunk, didn’t seem to believe her. Hell, even the few remaining didn’t seem that keen.

Once the people who were leaving were gone, one of the few remaining mobsters finally asked, “So, how do we know that you aren’t going to favor your two exes with the weapon distribution?”

I looked at Valkyrie for help. She rolled her eyes. “He’s the manufacturer. I’ll work out distribution with you at later.”

“Thank you,” I said. I did not want to know where these guns would end up. I definitely didn’t want to know what these people would do with them.

One of the only black people in the room raised his hands. When I nodded, he said, “So, y’all givin’ us guns, but those guys have fucking tanks and shit. I am not sending my boys into a meat grinder.”

I picked up the rifle Nari had made. “This,” I said, “is the Mjolnir. It fires a 10.4mm bullet. It’s a hybrid of long distance precision and anti-material rifle. It can probably penetrate five or six millimeters of seltsamemetall, which is probably what the Charon uses for armor.”

“And how many inches thick is their armor?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “the doors seem to be about four or five millimeters and the windows are pretty big so you can probably shatter them easily.” The gang leader raised his eyebrows. “The average body seems to be ten millimeters.”

“Yeah, we dead,” he said, rolling his eyes. But he didn’t leave.

Mai then raised her hand. “Yes, Mai?” I asked, a sinking feeling in my stomach.

“Well,” Mai said, “there are some people who can’t be trusted to act in good faith. What’s to stop them from making a move?”

Someone from the Kagemoto camp must have muttered something because Lang turned towards them and angrily asked, “The fuck you say?”

“Hey!” Valkyrie said as Kaori and Hirosama stepped in front of Lang. I noticed that Jaime and Bao were also moving in. “Do I need to separate you?”

“No ma’am,” Mai said calmly. “My people will behave.”

“So will mine,” Jen said sweetly, “but I have to wonder what Miss Lau’s definition of behave is. After all, a few weeks ago, her people were killing my people unprovoked.”

“Shit, girl,” Jaime said, “We had no idea which people were yours and which people were your dad’s. Think we did you a favor.”

“Oh really?” Hirosama asked. “Why, then, were some of Mark Kagemoto’s people given World War Two surplus? Why did some take to dressing in green?”

“Enough!” Valkyrie shouted.

“Guess they know what a winner looks like,” Jaime said with a smirk.

“I said-”

“Hey, Jaime,” Kaori asked, flames dancing from her fingers. “How’s your mother?”

“You fucking bi-” Jaime said, reaching for his waistband. I could see the cylindrical grip of a Broomhandle Mauser. Meanwhile, Hirosama was going for his Glock, Lang had his hand on a green polymer grip for a pistol, and Bao was pulling a sawed-off from seemingly out of nowhere.

“OI!” Eliza yelled, bringing up her Ballpeen, flicking off the safety, and turning on the laser in one smooth motion. “You fuckin’ pull a piece in ‘ere an’ I’ll pop you in your ‘ead, swear on me mum!”

“Eliza…” Jen said holding her hands up. I noticed she’d opened her shirt to reveal her two chrome Berettas.

“You know what?” the gang leader who’d asked how to deal with tanks said angrily, “Y’all should kick those motherfuckers outta here. The got Uzis, they got AKs, they got ARs, they got belt-fed shit. Hell, they even got capes. Meanwhile, my boys can barely scrape together some pistols and shotties. They don’t need any more shit.” The rest of the remaining criminals murmured in agreement.

“Listen, you little shits,” Jen said, “I don’t remember you having trouble a few weeks ago. Stop playing the underdog, and pay attention to what’s coming.” She stood up. “I don’t have to deal with this bullshit. The Kagemotos will guard their territory.” Her glare travelled around the room. “From everyone. Even if we have to throw rocks.” Before anyone could comment, she stormed out, her two bodyguards following close behind.

There was a moment of awkward silence. Mai stood up. “Nate,” she said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel like we can make a deal in this environment. If you would like to make a deal with competent people, you know where to contact us.” She smiled and walked out, her entourage pausing for posturing.


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Track 22: Slippery People

“So,” Eliza said as we stood outside the brick perimeter wall to the factory, “is this really going to kill us if we don’t put in the correct codes?”

“According to Andy,” I said, “that’s an option that he doesn’t think is on. We didn’t want people taking things that didn’t belong to them and Andy wanted to test out some autonomous defenses. We honestly didn’t think something this bad would happen, but we decided what the hell. Have multiple layers of security in case of apocalypse. Right now, though, the shaped charges aren’t active, so all that should happen is the cops get called.”

“But you aren’t a hundred percent sure,” Eliza said.

“No, I’m not.” Between that knowledge and my painkillers wearing off, my hands were shaking as I typed in the code. “Hey, hey!” I said as there was a buzzing sound that cause Eliza to jump. “First try!”

The door opened to reveal a long hallway. Mounted on the ceiling was our prototype machinegun set into a prototype automated mount. “Fuckin’ ‘ell, Nate,” Eliza said as she pushed me in my wheelchair down the hall, “Please tell me the damn thing’s human-controlled.”

“Well,” I said, “with Andy, May, and Nari out of the country, and with most of our staff being former military and law enforcement people who signed back up, we couldn’t really have them be remote controlled. Don’t worry, that one isn’t on at this level.”

“Great.” Eliza said. “It’s so nice t’know that at least one death trap isn’t functional.” I decided, at that point, not to tell her about the auto-turret behind us. Or the claymores and C-4 built into the walls. Or the Punji sticks in the grates below us. Only the turret was active anyway.

Before the door swung shut, we heard a soft thump. Eliza turned around. “Oi,” she said. “I think Valkyrie’s ‘ere.”

“Let here in,” I said. “It’ll be good to talk to her before the others get here.”

Eliza mad a grunt of affirmation and opened the door. “Thanks,” I heard Valkyrie say. “I’ve heard things that make me… hesitant about just barging in here.”

“Yeah,” I said, “probably for the best. Let’s just get in so I can set the security to a more appropriate level.”

“Just so you know,” Valkyrie said, walking besides us, “there are several dead Dragon’s Teeth soldiers in the courtyard around the building.”

“I thought they might try and infiltrate the building,” I said. “After all, they did make several attempts to catch me. I think they might want me and one of my engineering partners because we can make better weapons than they can.” Valkyrie raised an eyebrow. “Really,” I said. “They can’t make rifles for shit. Vehicles are a different story. There’s other reasons, but I’m not going to get into them.”

“Maybe we should get the bodies out of the way,” Eliza said.

“Let’s turn off the turrets first,” I said. “Those things are set to motion and they can’t really tell the difference between good guys and innocent bystanders yet.”

“Why are they in a city of almost two hundred thousand?” Valkyrie asked.

“They’re facing inwards,” I said defensively.

“I swear,” Valkyrie said, “one of these days, I’m going to be here to give you an ass whooping.”

“‘E means well,” Eliza said.

“That’s what makes it so frustrating,” Valkyrie said. “With people like Minute Man, you expect them to be pieces of shit-”

“Wait,” I said, “Minute Man’s a piece of shit?” Minute Man was a hero who’d been in the cape scene since the eighties. He’d been the leader of the group by the same name and done the whole save kittens in tree and kiss babies thing for the entire time.

“Yes,” Valkyrie said. “You just have to look for it. Of course, the fucker’s gone to Canada, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. But he’s a piece of shit, and only in it for himself. What’s frustrating are the people who are doing awful shit for others, or seem like they want to be good but it never works out.”

I considered her words as I began to fiddle with the security systems. I wondered if she was, other than me, she was referring to anyone I knew. Eventually, I got the systems tuned to an acceptable level (and discovered that most of the active turrets were out) and Valkyrie was able to fly the bodies to an Army command outpost nearby for disposal and analysis.

When she came back, I said, “So, how are we going to control the murderous criminals once they get their highly advanced firearms? I mean, I think this could be a good idea, but we have to take into consideration that they might be more interested in killing each other or in intimidating civillians than killing Dragon’s Teeth.”

“Could you put in some way of disabling them?” Valkyrie asked.

“No,” I said. “There’s a whole litany of reasons. Like if I could turn off the guns, so could the Dragon’s Teeth, for starters. Or I, or whoever I get to design this magic switch, could make it so that the gun accidentally turns off in the middle of a firefight. In any case, putting in a backdoor or remote off switch defeats the purpose. There’s also how long it would take to design and retool the factory, which is actually something I can’t do unless I get Andy back here. Whatever solution we come up with, it has to be social or political. Either that, or we have to decide that the worst thing they could possibly do will be offset by the thing they’re most likely to do.”

“That is a question really only you can answer,” Valkyrie said. “We’re not hearing anything from the captured areas.”

“Which is pretty disturbing,” Eliza said.

I considered this. If Alma was telling the truth, the Teeth might be under new management soon. Also, the one time I had been behind Dragon’s Teeth lines had been during a test phase. That could mean what happened in Korea wouldn’t happen again. On the other hand, even though I hadn’t encountered any mass graves there, I had only seen two civilians. One had been in the company of UNIX agents. The other had been Nari. Genocide seemed to be a very real possibility.

“Is there a way of distributing them so that they can’t access them until the Teeth show up?” I asked. Then I answered my own question. “No. They move too fast.” I took a deep breath. “The best case explanation for I saw in North Korea was that the DPRK and the Dragon’s Teeth had been supernaturally good at evacuating civilians. I don’t think that explanation is likely.”

An alarm buzzed. “Well,” Valkyrie said, “they’re here.”

“Let me check,” I said, getting out of my wheelchair.

“OI!” Eliza said. “Don’t you fuckin’ get out of that.” She walked over to the monitor. “It’s not just Jen. ‘Parently, all the other fuckin’ reprobates showed up as well and they’re ‘avin’ a chat.”

“So should we bring them in here to kill themselves or let them get it out of their systems?” I asked.

“Don’t even joke about that,” Valkyrie said.

“Sorry,” I said. “You two go bring them in, I’ll go over this stuff some more.” Eliza picked up a Ballpeen on her way out. “Leave that here.” I said.

“No,” she said, pulling out a forty-round magazine she’d taken from somewhere and inserting it into the well in the grip. “I ain’t lettin’ those fuckers shoot one of us ‘cause we weren’t prepared.”

I sighed as Eliza and Valkyrie walked off. As usual, the painkillers weren’t being too effective today. Funnily enough, I hadn’t felt like a piece of steak that had been in the oven too long until after I’d been scooped off that fallow field in whatever bucket had been handy. I looked at the shitty phone I’d salvaged, a budget model from the early two thousands. It was two hours until the next time I could take the super-addictive narcotic that didn’t do anything.

Valkyrie and Eliza brought in the first group. “You should wait until they all get here,” Valkyrie said. “I’ll go out front to buzz them in.”

“This isn’t all of them?” Eliza whispered. I had to agree with her somewhat fearful tone of voice. There were at least fifteen people in the conference area I’d picked out. I consoled myself in that they’d divided themselves into groups of two or three and were too busy regarding each other warily to consider rushing the sample table. I decided then and there that I’d skip the portion of the event where I’d bring the group down to the firing range, partly because I genuinely didn’t feel safe doing that, mostly because we were already halfway to the point where I’d either have to limit range time or get more product.

Something I learned about Massachusetts organized crime was that it seemed to be well-heeled and very white. Most of the people spoke like they were from either the North End, the South End, Worcester, or Russia. There was one group of black people, and two groups of Latino people. They were the only groups that approached friendly, but even I could tell there was a bit of restrained edge to their greetings.

Then the two elephants entered the room. Separated by Valkyrie, and looking like they would kill each other were the representatives from the Jade Empire and the Kagemoto family.

The Kagemoto family probably had the tiniest base in Massachusetts. They were genuine Yakuza and, from what I’d heard, only managed to maintain their pool of hardened gunmen by importing people from Japan. Jen was there, of course, flanked by Hirosama and Kaori Murakami, a husband and wife team of Parahuman enforcers who worked under the names Dokutsu and Tatsu. Jen wore a red Boston Red Sox sweater and blue jeans, while the Murakamis looked as intimidating as usual in their sharp suits and tinted shades. As usual, despite being smaller, Kaori’s burns were more intimidating than her husband’s acne scars.

The Jade Empire was a different story. Three of the four representatives were Asian, which, despite the gang being inspired by the Chinese Triads, was unusual for the group. Most of the people were bored, middle-class suburban kids, low-income people in their twenties, or Brazilian immigrants. Jaime Washington followed this rule. He was one of the few black kids from my hometown and had somehow gotten into the Jade Empire early on and now seemed pretty high up in the hierarchy. Lang and Bao Zi were exceptions. The Lupine brother and sister pair were from China. I’d only heard that they were Lupines as they didn’t have the dog ears like Eliza did, but they had a certain confidence to their movement that indicated powers. Those three people wore green: Bao Zi wore a green waist-length peacoat, black vinyl skirt, high-heeled boots, and green aviator sunglasses, Lang wore a Celtics jersey and matching track pants with long gold chain, and Jaime was wearing a green hoodie opened up to reaveal a Kendrick Lamar t-shirt and baggy jeans.

The fourth Jade Empire member was someone I never thought to see, but should have expected. Mai Lau was a small Asian girl who had been a few years behind me in school. She had somehow come into a large amount of money and, in retrospect, her fortune and business ventures had grown with the rise of the Jade Empire. She was the only one in her party not exchanging murderous looks with the Kagemotos. In fact, she was dressed in an orange Maynard High School tee, jeans, and sneakers. She was even carrying a notebook like she was going to class again. Then she saw that I was there. Her eyes widened in shock as she met mine.

Jen noticed her reaction and began staring from Mai to me and back. Mai noticed this, and her face became more guarded. It was at this point that the rest of the room noticed the new arrivals and the atmosphere somehow became even more tense.

“Alright,” Valkyrie said, “Kagemotos over there, Jade Empire over there.” The places she pointed to were on opposite ends of the room. The two groups made some last attempts at posturing, then moved to their assigned locations. Valkyrie took turns glaring at them until she was satisfied they wouldn’t kill each other, then made her way back to us. “Do you know them?” she asked me under her breath when she arrived.

“Good question,” Eliza said in a neutral tone.

“I went to NIU with Jennifer Kagemoto,” I said. “Mai Lau was from high school, we only knew each other from theater class and a play or two.”

“Is that all?” Valkyrie asked.

“For Mai, yes.” I said. I turned to look Eliza in the eye. “I swear to God, yes.” I turned back to Valkyrie. “Jen, well, you’ve dealt with her. Jen makes everything complicated.” I considered this for a moment. “By the way, why the hell is Mai here?”

“She’s the Jade Emperor,” Valkyrie said. “When Jen killed her father a few weeks ago, she made a grab for Kagemoto territory. When Jen consolidated control, part of her retaliation was to dox Mai. She won’t admit it, but everyone knows Jen did it.”

“I take it that isn’t the first time they’ve fought?” I asked.

“Sort of,” Valkyrie said. “Mai’s been hidden pretty well. I think Jen only knew it a few minutes before the rest of us. Also, Jen hadn’t really had much control over the Kagemotos before she did her takeover. I think things got more intense.”

I sighed and buried my face in my hands. “Jesus fucking Christ, why the hell couldn’t this be easy?” I raised my head and said, “Well, you might as well give your speech.”

Valkyrie considered me with narrowed eyes for a moment. Then she turned around and slammed the pommel of her axe on the floor a few times. A gust of wind blew throughout the room each time the pommel hit. “Everyone!” she said. “I know each and every one of you are, to some extent, in this for money. We all know that there’s a new and very disruptive force that wants to take over pretty much everything. I thought, before I made my proposition, you’d want to hear from one of the few people with first-hand knowledge of them.” She stepped back and gestured to me.


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Track 21: Too Many of my Friends are Criminals

Somehow, I woke up. I think I had woken up several times before, but I didn’t count that in the same way I don’t count getting up at 2 AM to get some water as waking up.

The first thing I felt when I woke up was how much it hurt. I moved, and I could feel bits of my skin catch on the fibers of the bedclothes I was on. “Oi.” I looked up to my side. There sat Eliza in a hospital gown, head, left arm, and various other body parts wrapped in gauze. The parts that were visible had either first or second-degree burns. “You awake, or are you going to just going to go back to sleep again?”

“I might,” I said. My lips were sticking together. I wondered if that had something to do with me being out for however long I was out.

Eliza smiled. “I’d hug you, but you wouldn’t thank me. Just so y’know, we’re in Worcester. They detonated some sort of plasma weapon in Saint Louis and a few of the little bits munted us.”

“I know,” I said. “I remember that part. I take it that they didn’t use one of those personal launchers?”

“They ‘ave personal ones?” Eliza asked.

“Trust me,” I said, “they’re nasty, but nowhere near what that thing was.”

“We think it was a bomber,” Hicks said, barging into the room. He was badly burned, but not as burned as Eliza. “We managed to shoot down a couple, we meaning us, the Canadians and the Mexicans. We even shot down and secured the one that nuked Saint Louis.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Every time the government can get a news broadcast over the Dragon’s Teeth propaganda they’ve been bragging about it,” Hicks said. “They have to. Fourteen cities destroyed by a new weapon, most of Europe and Asia completely dark, allies chickening out, what the hell else can they do?”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I said. “What? What’s going on? Is the government nationalizing industry? The people in charge-”

“Mosta your reps got murdered around the time we were burning,” Eliza said. “They nearly took DC, killed damn near everyone in the White House, includin’ the President, Vice-President, and Cabinet, then ran ‘round breaking things in Capitol Hill before your blokes were able to stop them.”

“The… the president’s dead?” I said.

“He’s not the only one,” Hicks said. “Greg’s dealing with your lawyer’s real boss, just so you know.”

“Oh God,” I said. “Please tell me Ken isn’t dead. Jen’s going to-”

“Going to what?” Jennifer Kagemoto asked as she and a few bodyguards walked in, her green eyes flashing angrily and her ponytail swaying. “As people have constantly been telling me there isn’t anything I can’t do. I lose dozens of people killing my father, I lose even more when the Jade Empire and the Irish start sniffing around with their little rat noses, and now the Dragon’s Teeth are killing my people? My unarmed people. They’re going in the book.”

“Is that a confession?” Hicks asked.

Jen turned around to glare at Hicks. “You’re the only cop in the Goddamn building not on painkillers, in a wheelchair, and/or on the take, the district court’s a fucking refugee center, and I am extremely perturbed. Shut your trap, you arrogant, hypocritical, myopic piece of shit.”

There was a knock on the window. I turned.

I had only seen the woman floating outside my fourth-story window once in the flesh. If her long braid didn’t fall out of her Viking-style helmet, it would be hard to tell her gender from underneath the heavy breastplate and fur cloak. Everyone in Massachusetts knew her name. Valkyrie, the Champion-type Parahuman from the Minutemen, the state’s largest super hero group. Through the thick window, I could hear her ask, “Mind if I come in?”

Jen glared.  “I don’t know if I can stop you.” Then, as an afterthought, she added, “Bitch.”

“I’m only going to force my way in if anyone’s in danger,” Valkyrie said. “But we need to talk.”

“About what?” Jen asked. “If you want in on the fixing, that’s about a few weeks too late.”

“We both know there’s more important things,” Valkyrie said. “If I was the one pulling the plug, I’d be looking for a fight, too.”

Jen snarled, drawing her twin Berettas and unloaded them into Valkyrie. Eliza and Hicks got down on the floor, and I tried to drill myself into the bed. The last time I’d been in a hospital bed, unable to move, with an unstable Jumper, it hadn’t exactly improved my recovery time. One of Jen’s thirty-two rounds (a guess, based  on my own less fancy Berettas) ricocheted  and hit me in the head.

“Please stop,” Valkyrie said, “before you actually kill someone.”

I couldn’t see Jen’s reaction because I was busy clutching my bleeding temple and swearing, but I could hear the fear and struggle in Jen’s voice as she holstered her pistols. “So, what did you want?”

Valkyrie climbed through the window. “In case you haven’t heard, the Minutemen aren’t on the job anymore.”

“Really?” Jen asked, her voice brightening a bit. “What happened?”

“Some,” Valkyrie said, “are heading off to Canada. Others are joining some national groups who’re taking advantage of the cease fire to do God-knows-what to stop the Dragon’s Teeth. I’m trying to put together some capes to do something more productive.”

“And you’re desperate to come to me for help,” Jen said. “Why?”

“Because people like you know things about this state I’ll never figure out in a million years,” Valkyrie said.

“You could ask the FBI,” Hicks said. “And we’re not unstable.”

“If I thought the FBI knew the things she did or had a tenth of the capabilities it did six months ago,” Valkyrie said, “I would be talking to Massachusetts’ Field Director. Hell, if he was still alive, I’d be talking to him. But he’s dead and ninety percent of you are on traffic detail now.” She pointed to Jen. “We need people like her, Agent Hicks.”

Jen’s eyes narrowed at Valkyrie. “I’ll think about it.”

“That’s all I ask,” Valkyrie said.

As the hero started to leave, Jen called out, an exceedingly fake smile on her face, “By the way, it would be nice if you’d keep me informed as to who’ll be in this little club.”

After the hero flew off, Hicks said, “I don’t like it.”

“What part?” Jen asked sweetly. “The part where the country’s burning or the part where someone admitted that your agency is completely ineffective? Because honestly, I’m not really happy about either as a tax payer.”

“So, in other bits of news about resistance,” I said, trying to stop things from getting heated, “has anyone taken me up on my offer for weapon upgrades? I know from personal experience that the current stuff the US has can’t penetrate the standard Legionary armor that well.” That had been a bit of an overstatement. They had fallen down from my G3, albeit after what felt like twice the normal amount of bullets at half the average range. Berserkers, infantry with even heavier armor, were an even tougher nut to crack.

“Do you know how much it takes to replace a standard piece of equipment?” Hicks asked. “Even if we were able to just magically buy them all-”

“Not magically,” I said. “I just want the materials.”

“Yeah,” Hicks said rolling his eyes. “I’m no economist and I wasn’t a quartermaster, but I know enough about logistics to know that little request’s going to be an absolute nightmare.” I had no solution for that. “Then, you have to deal with training every soldier how to use the damn things.”

Yes! There was a problem I’d actually designed the weapons to side-step. “That shouldn’t be a problem,” I hurriedly said. “The Maccabee and the Ballpeen mostly use bits of the AK and AR-15 platform, so-”

“So they’re basically neither,” Hicks said.

“Well,” I said, “I suppose you could look at it that way.”

“And I have five bucks that the internals are nothing like an M16,” Hicks said.

If I was Nari, I would have immediately veered off that previous point and dissed the mechanical forbearers of our weapons and creators thereof. Instead, all I could say was, “They’re a lot better than what we have currently.”

“Whatever,” Hicks said, getting up to leave. “We literally don’t have enough resources to put you in prison, and I doubt we’d have a leg to stand on, seeing that you haven’t done anything in a country that’s in a position to extradite. Stay here until you’re healed or whatever, then give your bed up to the next poor bastard who needs it.” Judging by the tone of his voice, if there weren’t a lot of people in line right now, there would be soon enough.

Still, the Maccabee assault rifle, the Ballpeen SMG, and the Uilon Mangchi pistol could all pierce Dragon’s Teeth body armor of all kinds according to our computer simulations. The as-of-yet unnamed dual-belt-fed machinegun I’d made could do the same, except you could hold down the trigger for a lot longer. The sniper/anti-material rifle Nari had made could theoretically combined the anti-armor capabilities with something like a Barret M82 (but increased to possibly pierce Charon armor) and the range and accuracy of a more traditional sniper rifle. These could make a serious difference.

Jen had waited a bit while Hicks left. When he finally did, she turned back to me and said, “Such a shame. Those guns were quite excellent from what I saw.”

“Mm,” I said noncommittally. While in Japan, I had found out that Jen had managed to get a few crates through her police contacts. She only had seen the Uilon Mangchis, Maccabees, and Ballpeens, thanks to helping me test them and using some to shoot our way out of a nest of angry cultists.

“Imagine,” she said, “what would happen if you found people who could use them. People who were very, very good at blending into the woodwork.”


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Track 20: Gods of Hellfire

The next stage of the journey was getting into another military cargo plane. We’d be flying to Kansas City. Then, depending on the amount of groundfire, we’d either drive to Saint Louis or get back on the plane. Seeing as the choices were either C130, military Humvee, or MRAP, I didn’t really have a preference.

However, other people did. “I just think,” Watanabe said, “that going by plane is a really, really bad idea. If we get shot down like we did last time, I don’t think we’re going to be as lucky.”

“And driving’ll be better?” Eliza asked. “Sorry, mate, but the only dif between travelin’ by air and travelin’ by car’s that we’re going to be in the car for longer, and longer travel time means more chances for fuckery.”

“Doesn’t matter what you think,” Hicks said laconically. “Air National Guard wants us off their plane. We’re going to hitch a ride with a supply convoy, then play it by ear.”

Kansas City was chaos when we touched down. On the approach, Barton looked out the window and said, “Look at all the cars…” We crowded around. Below was Interstate Route 70. There was a long line of cars that seemed solid from Utah to Maryland on one side and completely devoid of traffic except for a convoy of tanks on trailers and two-ton trucks on the other.

When we landed on the terminal, we were greeted by four National Guard troopers wearing thermal goggles. After checking everyone to make sure they weren’t wearing masks (which, of course, involved being held at gunpoint) and that there were no stowaways, we were bundled into an MRAP and transported to the FBI office. This office was more heavily guarded. SWAT operators and Guardsmen were stationed around the building with every Guardsman and many SWAT operators equipped with some kind of thermal vision. We were pinched on the forehead multiple times. I also noticed that everyone there seemed to mainlining caffeine and many people I assumed were FBI agents were wearing traffic vests.

Eventually, we were taken to the building cafeteria. “Here,” the guide of the minute, a female FBI agent slightly older than Agent Hick, said. “Rest. I’m going to get coffee, then I’m going to direct traffic for another twelve hours.”

“But you’re on the anti-fraud task force,” Agent Barton said. “Shouldn’t you be chasing down the profiteers?”

Our guide shook her head and laughed ruefully. “Ha. I wish. We’ve already had a bunch of locals get shot because of panicky assholes and Dragon’s Teeth fifth columnists. We’re going insane trying to keep these people moving. Wish they’d stay where they were.”

“They’re afraid the Dragon’s Teeth are going to get them,” Barton said. “If my family were there, I’d be trying to get them out as well.”

“Yeah,” Hicks said, “but they aren’t helping.”

“Amen,” our guide said walking off. “Especially when they run people over trying to keep them out of the Army lane.”

“Jesus Christ,” Eliza said. “‘S’all gone mad, innit? The ‘ell ‘appened?”

“I guess we got used to having the most advanced tech and the baddest motherfuckers,” I said.

“We still have the Marines,” Hicks said. Eliza and I exchanged glances. “You ever fought with Marines?” Hicks asked.

“Look,” I said, “I know you were in the Corps, but right now, our only hope is that the Dragon’s Teeth has miscalculated and we’re the one they didn’t throw enough bodies at. They’ve got better guns, better training, and I’m not sure they’re mentally capable of giving up.”

“Are you saying we should give up?” Hicks asked.

“The exact opposite,” I said. “I’m saying we have to bleed them. The basic law of physics says that they can’t keep what they’re doing up forever. The more resources they spend taking us down, the less they can spend elsewhere. If the world has any chance of beating them, this country, and every country they invade, needs to either become Stalingrad or the Khyber Pass.”

“And if we can’t?” Barton asked. “If we don’t have the resources or the will?”

“I think,” I said, “it’s possible for the Dragon’s Teeth to take this country. Staying in it will be another thing. And it’s not just this country that’ll fight back after being taken. I can’t imagine the British just going quietly into the good night, the French resistance probably formed an hour before the surrender came in, and I can’t imagine any former colony being too thrilled about giving up their independence. The Dragon’s Teeth have legitimately taken on an impossible task.”

“So the key thing’s bein’ alive to point and laugh when they fall flat on their fuckin’ faces?” Eliza asked.

“Basically, yeah,” I said.

We rested in the cafeteria as best we could. Eventually, I noticed that a bunch of people in costumes were coming in as well to get food, coffee and rest as well as FBI agents, police, and National Guard officers. When I pointed it out to Hicks, he said, “Local heroes and a few villains have been in the thick of it since it broke out. This is pretty much the only place that isn’t complete chaos at the moment.”

“Really?” I said. “Because every thirty minutes it sounds like they’re trying to repel a determined attack.”

“They are,” Barton said. “The invisible ones have made several attempts to get into the building.”

“When we get to safety,” I said, privately doubting that was even possible at this point, “what are you going to do with me?”

“Ask you not to leave the country,” Hicks said. “Then probably go out and direct traffic. I honestly have no idea.”

“Because I have a weapons factory,” I said. “And I make guns specifically designed to defeat Dragon’s Teeth armor.”

“Are you asking me for a deal?” Hicks asked.

“If the courts are still functioning,” I said, “talk to my lawyer. If they aren’t, well, I might as well give them away. Just give me the raw materials, and I’ll give you weapons and ammo.”

“I cannot promise you anything,” Hicks said.

Eventually, we got a ride. An army truck was heading East to pick up supplies and could give us and a bunch of wounded a ride to Saint Louis. We were pressed in towards the front of the cab with the injured soldiers near the front. In the center, there was enough room for stretchers. You could put two side by side and three top to bottom. The people on them were either suffering from hallucinogenic gas, horrifically burned but stable, or both. The other injuries included amputations, burns, paralysis, neurological damage, deafness, and blindness. They could sit on a bench in a bouncy truck for long hours without dying, but that was about the closest to physically being combat-ready they could be. A few were physically and mentally capable of holding a P90, MP5, MP5K, Tommy gun, or M3 that had been broken out of the reserves.  This made them feel like they could still fight.

I felt sick looking at them. The hodgepodge of museum pieces, military police weapons, and conscripted law enforcement equipment wasn’t given to them to assuage their ego. It had to be because they felt that there was no one else to guard the transports and even something as plentiful and basic as an assault rifle was desperately needed elsewhere. So here we were, with men almost literally scraped off the battlefield in pieces with a hastily assembled mish-mash of inadequate weaponry. If Dragon’s Teeth attacked us, a trained marksman at the top of their game with an MP5 or P90 might be able to hit them at two hundred meters reliably, but even a P90’s 5.7mm ammo wouldn’t have a prayer of piercing their armor. The charitable explanation was they weren’t there to stop the Teeth, but instead panicky, angry civilians who might think we’d be carrying supplies.

It happened almost as soon as Saint Louis came into view. I felt everything fall away from me. My seat, the truck, everything. Suddenly, I, and what seemed to be everyone else on Interstate 70, were now standing in infinite whiteness.

“Greetings!” a voice thundered. Towering above us was a giant. His race appeared to be Mediterranean or Arabic, but something told me he was Dragon’s Teeth. “I, Nero Mortus, am the commander of the Dragon’s Teeth in the Central US Heartland. By the bidding of my creators, I am told to give you a message. Surrender. What has already happened is child’s play. What shall happen next is a demonstration. If you have not surrendered after this, we shall continue to unleash hellfire upon you. You have been warned”

Instantly, I was back in the truck. I was lying on my legs, I ached all over, especially around my lap belt like I had been knocked around, and there was a strange dusty smell. Everyone else had been thrown around. The two medics, who hadn’t been seat-belted, were the worst off. One had landed against the backflap of the truck, her neck at a strange angle. The other had several compound fractures on one arm. His screams and the bones poking out through his formerly green fatigues were nightmarish to say the least. Several of the more damaged soldiers seemed to have external and internal wounds re-opened. From the cab, I could hear someone panicking.

“We need to get out of here,” I said, fumbling with my seat belt.

“No. Safest place to be in an accident is a car,” Barton said. “If we get hit again-”

“Agent Barton,” I said, looking pleadingly into his eyes, “as the person with the most knowledge on the Dragon’s Teeth, I am begging you to help me get everyone out of this truck.”

“Why?” Hicks asked.

“Instinct,” I said. I truly had no idea why I thought this. I had no idea what about that hallucination told me that staying in the truck was a bad idea, I just knew.

Not even taking a moment to consider my reasoning, Hicks barked out, “You heard the kid! Everybody out of the damn truck!”

“And if you’re able to walk,” I said, “we need all the civvies out of their cars and off the highway!”

Where we were was not ideal. We were in what was essentially a dirt field. Around us were the crop fields that you typically associate with the heartland, but we were in the only barren one for what had to be hundreds of miles. For what seemed to be hundreds of miles of highway, cars, trucks and armored vehicles had crashed. Most had been going under five miles an hour, so most people were realatively unhurt. Further from where we were, I saw an obvious exception where a Bradley APC with a smashed turret had run over several civilian vehicles.

The only people in the truck who were physically capable of aiding the evacuation were Hicks, Barton, Watanabe, one of the drivers, and me. Luckily, most of the nearby civilians and five Marines in a nearby Humvee were able to help. The marines hadn’t needed our prompting, their leader, an elderly colonel, had the exact same idea as I did. “Move those people farther from the road!” I yelled as I helped an elderly woman out of a Jeep and over all the cars.

“Larson! Daniels!” the colonel yelled in a voice that had obviously been subjected to a pack of cigarettes a day for the past forty years, as he, Hicks, and the second-highest ranking Marine (a corporal) were passing young children out of a school bus and over cars, “I want an air raid trench! Give that lawyer with the stupid hat an entrenching tool and make him useful!”

Then, from the direction of Saint Louis, there was a flash of bluish-white light and the temperature had to have increased from ninety degrees Fahrenheit to a hundred and twenty. I knew what that meant. “WE’RE OUT OF TIME!” I screamed. “OFF THE ROAD! OFF THE ROAD!”

Everyone panicked. People started running, the temperature kept rising, and the light got brighter. “DON’T GO INTO THE CORNFIELDS!” I yelled, dragging the old woman towards the barren field. “STAY ON THE DIRT! STAY ON THE-”

Then there was a roaring sound and the wheat field behind the dirt farm we were on went up in blue flame. A wave of heat hit me hit me like I’d opened an oven that had been broiling for an hour People screamed in terror and everyone began panicking.

“Young man,” the old woman I was helping along said, “please, save your-”

Then blinding bluish-white light and intense heat washed over us.


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Track 19: Brighter Nights

Surprisingly, nothing new went wrong until we got back to base. Even more surprisingly, things didn’t go wrong for a while.

That’s not to say, however, that things weren’t completely fucked around us. Throughout the entire trip to the base, I could see scenes of destruction through the window of the Bearcat I was in. Planes of all shapes and sizes had crashed to the ground. Most of them were civilian airliners carrying people fleeing from the expected Dragon’s Teeth amphibious attack, but there were plenty of military and cargo planes as well. A few even appeared to be Dragon’s Teeth.

There was also the expected mass exodus of civilians and police and military frantically directing them. People were angry and scared, and the fact that we seemed to be “cutting” when we were traveling via evacuation route pissed a lot of people off. Most of the populated roads we were passing were in good shape, but some were blocked by fallen planes, collapsed buildings, and wrecked, broken or abandoned buildings.

Then you’d get to a place where there had obviously been some sort of battle. Apparently, the Dragon’s Teeth had been raiding the line of evacuees. We’d see hastily barricades hastily erected by civilians and cops and the remains of pitched combined arms battles. Apparently, the Dragon’s Teeth had tanks, too. Like the Charons, they looked a lot like stealth bombers. There were also Charons with missiles and four-barreled miniguns for AA purposes and what appeared to be their answer to the Hummvee, except disguised as a luxury SUV. When you looked at how many wrecks Abrams tanks, Bradleys, Strykers, and Humvees there were per equivalent destroyed Dragon’s Teeth vehicle, you began to realize that the only reason the Teeth weren’t in control of that area was sheer numbers.

The worst part, though, was seeing what the civilians had faced when the battles began. Trapped by the sheer number of cars, they were essentially in a shooting gallery. Many wrecks had to be pulled off the road and body bags had apparently run out, as many unlucky enough to be hit were pulled off the road and left for all who drove past to see. Occaisionally, I’d see a mixture of civilians, soldiers, and first responders digging mass graves and checking ID. Most of the time the manpower seemed to be needed elsewhere.

As we moved on, I noticed that I could always hear gunfire and explosions. Mostly it was the thunder of big guns and impacts of those and missiles. When I say big guns, I’m talking stuff like 120mm mortars and 150mm Howitzers, things that were making my chest rattle just by firing at distances so far I couldn’t even see them. And they must have been firing faster than intended. Occaisionally, we’d hear small arms fire chattering. Sometimes it was even disturbingly close.

However, the scariest bits were the blue-white flashes of light off in the distance. We couldn’t get a good look at them, but I could tell that it was from Dragon’s Teeth plasma weaponry. That could not have been a good thing.

Eventually, we came got to a Guard base. It wasn’t a real base, more like a hastily fortified town near the Arizona-Utah border. The basic layout was an irregularly-shaped town with various sandbag emplacements and vehicles around it. Traffic was so bad that you simply could not cut through it, so makeshift bridges had been constructed. A little ways away, planes were landing on makeshift runways. They were mostly big C130s, and they were dropping off supplies, vehicles, and soldiers and taking away VIPs and wounded. I hoped I was a VIP. I didn’t want to get captured by Dragon’s Teeth.

We staggered out of the Bearcat, having been standing for what felt like several years. We couldn’t get a chance to sit because we were instantly swept up in a tide of mostly uniformed people. Some were attempting to herd us in different directions, others were accidentally shoving us along like a stream. I can’t speak for anyone else in that Bearcat, but I went along with it mostly because I was dead tired. Every few seconds, someone would pull on my forehead to see if I had a mask. Eventually, I was placed where I was supposed to be: an office of some sort that had been converted to VIP area. I fell asleep instantly.

I woke up after a while. However long I had been asleep wasn’t long enough. I’m not sure what woke me up because nothing had really changed. The TV that was on had been on since I’d come in, the guns were still going, and vehicles were still moving.

Speaking of the TV, I was now awake to tell what it was saying. A bunch of talking heads were sitting around, saying stuff that was probably completely wrong. Behind them was a map of the United States. Much of it was blue. However, there was an L-shaped area of either solid red or cross-hatched blue that started at Washington State and Montana, then went down the coast. Once it hit Mexico, it then headed East, taking New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana, and Florida as well as much of Texas and taking chunks out of states immediately to the North.

I blinked at the map uncomprehendingly for a few minutes until I realized what it was of. It was of the area the Dragon’s Teeth had taken. The four anchors on the screen were talking about the morality of the US breaking out the chemical weapons. My first reaction was outrage. Of course it was a good idea! I admit, normally I’d say the kind of stuff they were talking about was immoral, but if it was effective, then that was probably the only chance we had.

I was wondering whether or not poison gas would be effective (probably, at least at first, the Deets had this filter on their masks that could remove their own gases but not more permanent stuff,) when one of the anchors asked the question I should have asked at the beginning. “Hell yeah,” he was saying, trying to shout over the over three who were shouting over him. “We got-excuse me-we got all this stuff lying around and they ARE INVADING OUR COUNTRY! The only Goddamn question is why the hell aren’t we using our nukes?”

I paused. That was a good question. Why the hell weren’t we using our nukes? We had enough nuclear weapons at our disposal to end life on Earth and possibly break the back of the Dragon’s Teeth invasion. Were the people in charge hesitating to use them? Or could they not use them for some reason?

Either way, I was disturbed. My tired mind began racing with all the possibilities that could account for the lack of nuclear response. The best one was that the people in charge knew things I didn’t and the situation wasn’t that desperate. The alternative was they thought they knew things I didn’t and didn’t realize the gravity of the situation which was one of the worst options. Another was that they were worried about the political fallout as well as the other kind, or reports were so confused that they didn’t know where to aim. An even more disturbing possibility, looking at the map, was that the Dragon’s Teeth had found a way to destroy, disable, or capture the nuclear arsenal of the United States. At that point, I noticed that I was hyperventilating and made a conscious effort to stop.

A soldier, her gas mask and helmet off, wandered in. She began brewing coffee and when she noticed me staring at her blearily, she asked, “Y’all want some?” She looked to be in her thirties, but I couldn’t tell how many of those years had been added in the last few hours.

“Sure,” I said. I’m not a really big fan of coffee, but I was so tired it hurt and I wasn’t really able to go back to sleep. Since tea, soda, and hot chocolate weren’t on the menu, I’d be willing to try coffee. As she brewed, I asked, “So, how’re things going on outside?”

She laughed bitterly. “Well, I got my wish and went from a boring ass-desk job to this bullshit. You believe I wanted to be in the SEALs?”

“Careful what you wish for, sunshine,” Eliza said, opening her eyes a crack, “Y’just might get it.”

“Wish you’d told me that before today, ma’am,” the soldier said. “I’m Private Owens.”

“Don’t give me that ma’am bollocks,” Eliza said. “We might not’ve ever worn a uniform, but we’ve been in the shit before, an’ we’ll be in the shit again before this is all over.”

Private Owens considered this for a moment, then said, “Ok.” She held out her hand. “I’m Nadia Owens.”

Eliza shook it. “Eliza Henderson. And the zombie’s Nathan Jacobs.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said. “How are things going out there?”

“I been fightin’ for about twenty-four hours,” Nadia said. “Those fuckers have been kicking our asses for most of it. I was lucky. By the time I’d gotten out there, we’d managed to get enough ground fire to make it possible to send up something.”

Eliza sat up, suddenly awake. “We got shot down by those fuckers. D’you know where they’re coming from?”

“Girl,” Nadia said, “We can barely even see those shits, you think we can find where they came from? Anyway, I watched several dozen of our birds fall right out of the sky. Meanwhile, I’m with the 19th Spec Ops like I’ve always dreamed, manning 249, which is-”

“A machinegun,” Eliza said, “I know, I’ve been shot at by one.”

“What’d ya’ll say you did?” Nadia asked.

“Things,” I said. “Anyway, how’d you guys stop them?”

Nadia looked at us for a while, trying to figure out what we were. Eventually she asked, “What makes you think we stopped ‘em?”

“You’re standing here,” I said, “and they aren’t.”

“By that definition I suppose you’re right,” Nadia said, shrugging. “I say I only slowed ‘em down. When we could get the A10s and Apaches in, they’d take out a few vehicles, then they’d get shot down. We didn’t get any real breathers until we dropped some mustard gas on ‘em. Takes about five or so minutes for the gas to seep through, then they start hackin’ their lungs out.”

“Sounds bloody awful,” Eliza said.

“The reason I’m back here,” Nadia said, “is because when we came back to base to change our air supply, some bleeding heart idiot told us to take a rest.  Complete fuckin’ bullshit, we need every person capable of shooting to get out there and shoot.”

“Trust me,” I said, “these people you’re fighting, they’ve got a lot of tricks up their sleeves. We haven’t seen everything, and you’ll need to be rested to counter it.”

“Is that just a theory,” Nadia asked, “or are you speaking from experience?”

“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say,” I said.

“Mmm,” Nadia said, “well, let’s just say that the things I’ve seen so far make me really hopeful I don’t see any more. No new toys, and not a single Dragon’s Teeth fucker that hasn’t already been shot.”

“Have you seen the invisible people?” Eliza asked. “Well, not seen, but experienced?”

“Invisible Goddamned people?” Nadia asked. “They haven’t graced us with their presence. I’m pretty sure those planes are invisible, but it just ain’t right that they can give their people some Harry Potter-ass shit.”

“Use thermal imaging,” I said. “They light up like fucking Vegas on those.”

“I’ll tell my people,” Nadia said. “In the meantime, coffee’s just about…”

She stopped and stared at the door she had just came in. She had the coffee pot in her hands and it was shaking wildly, the coffee making waves. “Frank?” She asked. Eliza and I turned to look where she was staring. There was nothing there.

“D’you see them too?” Eliza asked.

Nadia turned. “Do I see who?” she asked, a note of dread in her voice.

“The dead people,” I said. “If you have, we’ve been seeing them as well. You should probably listen, they know more then we do.”

Nadia slowly and carefully set down the pot of coffee. “Well,” she said, “it was nice talkin’ to y’all but I’ve got to go now.” She then hurried out of the room as fast as possible.

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Track 18: 21st Century Warfare

We hunkered down as the dust trails came closer, the black shapes still hard to identify. Looking at the plane, I could see movement. The Marines must have seen or heard what I assumed to be Charons and were moving into firing positions. They must have known that four or five men with assault rifles didn’t stand a chance against four conventional APCs, let alone ones made out of whatever super space substance the Dragon’s Teeth.

Meanwhile, the civilians, FBI agents, and the pilots were taking off running. Some were heading towards us, which was smart. We had hiked up a hill that should have been impassable to wheeled vehicles like the Charon. The others were running along the relatively flat ground. That wouldn’t work. Charons could theoretically beat most sports cars on the track.

Their speed was demonstrated pretty quickly, appropriately enough. The vehicles came into range and the Marines began to open up. Unsurprisingly, they were ineffective and most of the vehicles simply ignored them. One cut off the people heading down the flat area. Twelve Dragon’s Teeth Legionnaires exited the vehicle and began controlling the runners. Two sped up to cut off the people heading up the mountain. When the dust cleared, I could see that they’d parked close enough that I could see that they’d parked perpendicular to us and opened their doors facing us, revealing their clinically white interior. Legionaries, in their Roman-inspired armor, were getting out and controlling the crowd. The last Charon, meanwhile, had slammed on its brakes, smashing into a Marine and enveloping itself in dust. When that dust cleared, it revealed six newly deployed Legionnaires who then proceeded to kill the remaining Marines. Then the Charon sped off to ride heard on the passengers from the plane trying to escape via the flat lands.

Meanwhile, we were lying down prone on the ground behind rocks and cacti. “Do you think they can hear us?” Watanabe whispered. Despite being about three hundred meters away from the soldiers, everyone else shushed him.

We watched as the Legionaries slowly herded the groups back towards the plane, occasionally firing off rounds. As they did, Eliza whispered, “Does anyone else ‘ear motors?”

“No,” I said. “Where are they coming from?”

Eliza pointed in a direction that was about thirty degrees off from where the Charons had come from. “‘Eavy vehicles, comin’ from over there. ‘Bout four, and they sound different from Charons. They’re goin’ slower an’ they’re usin’ petrol or diesel engines ‘steada electric.” She then turned and pointed behind us. “And some SUVs, plus a few other trucks. Bit more of them.”

“Hopefully that’s the National Guard,” I said. Then, from the first area Eliza had pointed, there was a gout of fire from a cannon’s muzzle flash and an equally impressive crack.  Something, probably a 105mm HEAT shell, smashed through the side doors of one Charon and kicked up a spray of dust. “Yep,” I said, watching the four Stryker Mobile Gun Systems (basically slower, less technologically-advanced versions of Charons with bigger guns) crest the hill, “it’s the National Guard.”

The Charon that had been was able to speed off in a cloud of dust. What I could see of it showed that, since the HEAT round had hit its doors, the damage was only cosmetic. Another Charon, however, wasn’t so lucky. I saw a HEAT round smash down right in front of it. Whatever the Charons were made out of must have been extremely lightweight, because it flipped over onto its roof, its gun turret jammed into the Arizona sand, rendering the vehicle disabled. It was a humiliating injury.

The Strykers, meanwhile, were pressing the attack. Every time a 105 fired, my chest would rattle like one of those big fireworks like the Fourth of July. The impacts of the shells were even more awesome. I felt like I was about to have a heart attack, it was so intense.

It would have been awe-inspiring if not for the fact that they weren’t hitting anything. A Stryker MGS is a platform with an anti-tank weapon given to people who are trained to hit broadsides of barns and not much else. They’re there to remove bunkers, fortified buildings of no strategic importance, and maybe a swarm of counter-attacking infantry. Expecting them to hit something as fast as a sports car is both unrealistic and unfair.

Charons, meanwhile, seemed to be designed for just this kind of situation. As soon as they took off, it became clear that any normal gunner couldn’t hit them without some sort of aim assist. Then they opened fire.

Their guns were around twenty or forty millimeters and fully automatic. The first time one of the Charons burped out some rounds, they exploded and bounced of one of the Strykers, causing the armor to crumple. The second time, they penetrated the armor of the cockpit and the vehicle swerved. Then another Stryker was hit, its front blowing out and its wheels collapsing. It coasted to a halt and lay there, smoke emitting from the holes.

Meanwhile, one Stryker got a miraculous hit on a Charon. The HEAT round must have impacted on the side-front, because the Charon’s rear raised up and it did an odd sort of pirouette on one of its front tires, its rear ramp falling open.

The two remaining Charons pulled up alongside their remaining attackers and released stunning broadsides. One Stryker had its front end seemingly melt from a long burst of the Charon’s autocannon. The last remaining Stryker, however, must have taken a round to its magazine or fuel tank. The darkening area was illuminated by multiple explosions from the stricken vehicle. It was then engulfed in flame and kept rolling, carried by momentum.

The Charons, seemingly unperturbed by the loss of half their team, slowly returned to patrol around the crashed plane. They’d been hit pretty hard, but I had to admit one was only due to surprise and another loss was completely due to either unearthly skill or a freak accident. Meanwhile, the soldiers they had disgorged were just finishing up herding the last few crash survivors back into the downed plane.

Then, from behind us, the missiles came. I’m assuming they were Javelin missiles, but I don’t really care. I just love the way they fucked up the Charons. Each one disappeared in a cloud of smoke and dust. One emerged, coasting along, smoke billowing out from a hole in the top, its front windscreens shattered and blood staining the hood and its turret spinning wildly. The other just stayed in its little cloud, explosions sending bits and pieces of it flying as its magazine exploded in a chain reaction.

I turned around. Soldiers, either National Guard or regular Army, were cresting the hill. They began firing their M16s, M249s, and M14s down into the somewhat clumped up Legionnaires. The Dragon’s Teeth should have been slaughtered.

Instead, that first wave of soldiers were mostly wiped out. They were good, but a lot of their shots missed. Again, at that range, in that light, with mostly just iron sights, it was understandable. And the shots that did hit were mostly stopped by the Legionnaires’ armor. The Legionnaires, meanwhile, had fancy optics, what was probably intense training, selective breeding, and genetic enhancements out the wazoo. They were slaughtering the first few to come over the hill.

Then two Stryker ICVs (like the Stryker MGS, but carries infantry and has machineguns instead of a cannon) and three Humvees crested the hill in V-formation. Three of the Humvees and the Strykers were equipped with M2 .50 caliber machineguns which seemed to be pretty good at knocking down Legionnaires in a way that made them unable to get up. The middle Humvee had an Mk. 19 automatic grenade launcher which didn’t seem to be as effective, but made me feel a lot better. Then, there was the sound of a 105 firing, and a group of Legionnaires disappeared in a cloud of dust and smoke. Apparently, there was a Stryker MGS out there that wasn’t as dead as the Charon operators would have liked.

Soon, there was little left of the forty-eight Legionnaires except corpses. Between the small-arms fire from the troops, the heavy machinegun fire from the supporting vehicles, and the formerly resting Stryker, the Legionnaires had been defeated. Barely. If half of those Charons hadn’t been taken out by the initial Stryker assault, or if the Javelins had missed, there would be a lot more US soldiers bleeding out on the sand and a lot less Dragon’s Teeth.

The soldiers advanced cautiously. Every time one of the Legionnaires twitched, the soldiers would open up again, raking the area with firepower. Eventually, their line advanced so far that one stepped on Watanabe. The soldier’s first reaction was to nearly blow Watanabe’s head off with an M16. Watanabe’s reaction was to let out a strangled cry.

“Jesus Christ!” the soldier said. “What the hell?” I noticed the soldier was wearing a gas mask. That explained why the Dragon’s Teeth wasn’t spamming hallucinogenic gas like they normally did.

Hicks, thinking fast, held up his ID. “It’s ok,” he said, “we’re FBI.”

More soldiers came over, training rifles on us. When there were about two or three soldiers for every one of us, one shone a light in our faces and checked Hicks’ ID. Another pinched our foreheads with his thumb and forefinger and pulled, obviously checking for masks. “You’ve been having infiltrators, too, huh?” Barton asked.

“How’d you find out about the masks?” one soldier asked.

“Some bastards with them,” Hicks said in annoyance, “managed to get into the Honolulu field office by wearing them and flashing US Marshall badges.” After a pause, Hicks said, “In retrospect, we kind of deserved that.”

“You guys can write up the after-action reports later, sir,” one of the soldiers said. “In the meantime, please stay here.”

We spent a while under guard while the Guardsmen advanced on the plane. I noticed that behind the armed Strykers and Humvees were two unarmed Strykers and two green Bearcat armored cars. The Bearcats sped past and approached the plane, running over the downed Legionnaires. I wasn’t sure whether or not that was on purpose. Some of the SWAT officers entered the plane, most stayed out and began checking the dead Dragon’s Teeth.

Then, the two unarmed Strykers moved in. One pulled up to the plane and the SWAT officers began bringing the civilians into the vehicles. The other collected the dead and injured Guardsmen, then pulled up next to the still-functioning Stryker MGS and began evacuating the people from it.

“So what happens now?” I asked.

“We get you guys back to base,” a Guardsman said, “and hope no more shit goes wrong.”


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