Track 3: The Coup

The President was true to his word. We really were holding some kind of trial. It was large auditorium, with chairs removed around the front-center. The remaining chairs were arranged in a C-shape, most facing towards the stage, a few near the front were facing the gap. In that gap were two lecterns facing the stage, upon which the President sat on a fancy leather swivel chair behind a heavy wooden desk, smiling down at me with a quiet satisfaction. Behind him stood Gupta and Mendez One lectern was unoccupied. The other one had Professor Karl Krieger at it. He turned around and smiled at me.

As he did, I noticed he wore handcuffs that forced his wrists to touch. They were painted a dull black, but as usual, his light brown eyes and bushy mane of hair and wild beard made him look like a demented lion. He was smiling like he was genuinely happy to see me. “Boyke!” he said happily, his accent as South African as ever. “Been busy, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I said, slightly guilty. I hadn’t completely betrayed him, but what I did was still treachery. No matter how much I reminded myself how crazy Krieger was and how there was a chance he was even worse than the President. It felt hollow.

“I take it you talked?” Krieger asked. “I was… wondering.”

“Oh he sang,” the President said. “Like a canary.”

As I walked down the central path to the unoccupied lectern, I noticed that everyone was watching me like I was the key witness in a courtroom drama. In the parts of the circle facing the stage, there were a mix of professors, students, and off-duty Campus Security. In the seats left to of the lecterns, a group of older, more important faculty members sat just beyond Krieger. In the seats to the right, closest to the empty lectern I noticed what looked to be most of the AMS and Shadowhaven faculty handcuffed and held at gunpoint by Professor Johnathan Blunt, the leader of AMS, and six CampSec guards with patrol uniforms and either SPAS-12 shotguns or P90 submachineguns. I also noticed that there were two guards by the only doors. They were both armed with black SCAR-L assault rifles. Besides them was what appeared to be a weapons rack.

On my way down, I passed Eliza. She gave me a thumbs-up sign and smiled, but she seemed nervous. She wasn’t the only one. Everyone seemed on edge. Especially the small group of AMS/Shadowhaven students who had entered NIU the year after me who were sitting in the back.

“Naturally,” Krieger said, responding to the President. “You have quite the way of convincing people, at least initially, Mr. Howell. Quite something, really.”

As I got closer, I noticed something else. The Rogue faculty seemed somewhat split. Fifty percent seemed to be on the chairs facing the imprisoned AMS/Shadowhaven faculty, one percent was mixed in, along with some other faculty and staff who obviously weren’t from any of the three groups. Suddenly, it hit me. The President was initiating a purge of the AMS and Shadowhaven faculty. After all, they were the biggest physical threat apart from Campus Security. Despite their tiny size, the combined firepower of Shadowhaven and AMS could potentially topple Campus Security. The only other school that could even hope to match their combat experience were the Rogues. As for the other schools, well, I actually had a chance to fight some of the Business majors in Hell Semester. If I wanted someone to take out AMS/Shadowhaven, I would sooner give guns to the least physically active students from the Turing Computer Science School.

When I finally got to the lectern, I saw Professor Antionette and Professor Rosalia Zemylachka, the leader of Shadowhaven, kneeling on the ground. Behind each, a CampSec guard stood, aiming their service pistols at their heads. Professor Antionette was nervous. Professor Zemylachka looked impassive, despite having a cut lip, forehead, and multiple bruises on her face.

“So,” the President said as I got to the lectern, “shall we begin?”

“Certainly,” I said.

“First off,” the President said, “could you state your name for the record and how you know the defendant?”

“My name is Nathan Jacobs,” I said. “I’m a student at the Academy of Military Science and I met Professor Karl Krieger at Hell Semester as my section’s sergeant. After completing that, he became my advisor.”

The President nodded. “I notice,” he said, “that you haven’t visited him as often as required. Is there a reason for this?”

“May I answer this?” Krieger asked.

“No,” the President said. “For obvious reasons.”

“He hasn’t told you everything,” Krieger said. “In fact, our lad hasn’t told you the juiciest parts. For instance, what did he tell you about me infiltrating Campus Security?”

“He…” the President began, arrogant as usual. Then his face changed to one of utter horror. “Fuck m-”

Before he could finish, Gupta and Mendez fired in unison. Well, not exactly in unison. Gupta’s shot from her Five-seveN passed cleanly through the President’s skull, with only a small spray of blood, bone and gray matter. The velocity of the round was such that the President’s head didn’t even move. Barely a millisecond passed when the first of the .45 ACP slugs from Mendez’s FNX-45 Tactical slammed into the President’s head. It exited from between the President’s eyes, causing to his face to explode like a watermelon struck with a hammer.

I didn’t see the second round. I had ducked behind the podium as soon as I saw the President’s head burst open. I looked to where Krieger was. He was also hiding behind his podium and laughing. Behind him the supposedly “loyal” faculty was busy killing each other. Apparently, some of the Rogue professors had smuggled in garrotes and ceramic blades and seemed to be massacring the others in a methodical manner.

From the section the captive faculty members were being kept, I could hear gunfire. Turning around, I expected to see them being massacred by CampSec and Professor Blunt. Instead, it seemed most of the CampSec officers and Professor Blunt were turning traitor. What I assumed to be the loyal guards had been almost immediately gunned down and the ones who’d thrown in with Krieger were now split between freeing the captives and moving towards the audience. The guards for Professors Zemylachka and Antionette were on the ground. The ones guarding Zemylachka had bled out, one guarding of the ones guarding Professor Antionette was catatonic, and the final one was desperately trying to stop Zemylachka from stabbing him.

Behind me, most of the audience was either panicking or getting as low as possible. I did notice, however, that some of the AMS and Shadowhaven students I had seen earlier were heading towards the entrance. One of the guards had slung her SCAR-L over her shoulder and was opening a weapons case. Meanwhile, her partner had executed two CampSec officers in patrol uniforms coming to investigate the sounds with one shot each.

After the initial purge had died down, the members of the coup began to free the prisoners and control the audience. Calm shouts of “Stay in your seats and put your hands over your heads!” began to echo throughout the chamber. From outside the room, I could hear gunshots. Whatever the plan for the coup was, it was just getting started.

Professor Blunt walked over to Krieger, Gupta and Mendez jumping off the stage to join them. After Blunt unlocked Krieger’s cuffs, he handed Krieger a custom silver or chrome-plated 1911.  I recognized it from Hell Semester, specifically when Krieger had pointed it in my face when I was goofing off during practice for disarming people. “Here, you crazy bastard,” Blunt said. “Figured you’d want this.”

“Yeah,” Krieger said, “Might be bit helpful.” He grinned and turned to Mendez and Gupta. “Still, did you see the look on Anthony’s face? Been dying to wipe that smug grin off since the nineties?”

“Must have been something,” a voice from the stage said. We turned around to see the President shakily standing up. “Shame I didn’t have a mirror.”

In response, Professor Blunt, Mendez, and Gupta unloaded their weapons into him. After the President collapsed, I thought I heard him weakly gasp, “Not… gonna work, guys.”

Krieger, suddenly very calm, said, “Well, I guess we’ll have to go with plan B.”

Professor Zemylachka, who had finished butchering the remaining guard and stealthily approached us, said, “I think I have a few ideas.” I turned to look at her blood-spattered face. She seemed disturbingly eager.

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Track 2: That You Hold Over Me

“So,” Officer Mendez, a Campus Security officer from Mexico said, looking down at his notes he had taken while interviewing me, “You have no idea who that man was? Or how your two friends found you?” I had dealt with Officer Mendez and his partner, Officer Gupta before. Some of these encounters had been positive, some negative, some ambiguous. For instance, in one encounter, they had expressed doubts about the President and I had subtly pointed them in Krieger’s direction. Then I had let Krieger know about them.

Seeing how this room was most likely bugged (if not by Campus Security, then by the President himself) I knew I couldn’t directly ask them. But I couldn’t exactly trust them if I didn’t know where their loyalties lay.

“No,” I said, responding to Mendez’s question as calmly as possible. “Do you know what happened to the guards who were supposed to be near me?” And why they were there in the first place? “Because it seems to me that whoever that guy was, he had some help on the inside.”

Mendez and Gupta exchanged dark looks. “Dead or disappeared?” I asked.

“Disappeared,” Gupta said. “I’m curious as to how you guessed.”

I blinked. That was like being given a multiple choice question with only possible answers and saying, “I don’t know, either A or B.” There were only two possible outcomes for those guards. I mean, you could say that they could end up getting caught, but in this scenario I sort of lumped that outcome with dying. I stared at them for a moment, then asked, “Are you fucking serious? Was there a magic third option, or did you two seriously expect them to just happen to be getting coffee when my killer stopped by?”

Mendez nodded. “I see,” he said.

“And,” I said, “if you’re pissed off that I’m implying they’re extremely unprofessional, I’m not. I’m implying that anyone in your job wouldn’t have lasted if they thought they could get away with not guarding someone their boss told them to guard.”

“Do you know why you were being guarded?” Gupta asked.

“No,” I said. “I don’t have a reputation for making trouble at school,” at least I didn’t think I did, “and I think the Japanese law enforcement and the Defenders of Fuji have bigger problems than me at the moment.”

“Hi there,” a masculine voice said. We turned around to see a man who looked a lot like a taller version of Robert Downey Jr, flanked by two CampSec guards in full combat gear and a third man in a more ornate version of the Campus Security patrol uniform. It was President Anthony Carter Newton-Howell. He looked peeved. “Any… any particular reason you two” he said indicated Mendez and Gupta with an awkward wave of his hand, “are interviewing Mr. Jacobs, Officers…?”

Mendez and Gupta had stood up and saluted as soon as they had heard the President’s voice. “I’m Officer Mendez and this is my partner, Officer Gupta. We’re following standard protocol and-”

“Interviewing  the victim and the suspect,” the President said, rolling his eyes. “Very efficient, in a self-defense case. He’s both.” He paused, then said, “Thing is, I specifically asked Chief Gonzalez to interview the people involved in the incident myself before anyone else gets a chance to talk to them.” He turned to the man in the fancy version of the patrol uniform. I noticed that the gold badge he wore identified him as I. Gonzalez.

“Correct, sir,” Chief Gonzalez said.

“Sorry, sir,” Gupta said, “Our supervisor, Sergeant Berthier assigned us and-”

“Really?” Gonzalez said. “Berthier disappeared four hours ago.”

Gupta and Mendez exchanged nervous glances. Only Gupta and Mendez could tell if it was because they were caught in a lie or if their only hope of salvation had just disappeared. “We got the call from him fifteen minutes ago.” Mendez said. He held up his cPhone. “Well, it was a text, but…”

“I think,” Gonzalez said, “that you should go with Officers Landers and Sato.” The two CampSec officers in combat armor had been fidgeting nervously with their P90s. Despite the bulky uniforms and dark sunglasses, I could tell that they didn’t want to be arresting fellow officers.

“Things going wrong?” I asked innocently as the security officers left the room.

I instantly regretted my flippantry. The President’s eyes hardened even more. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?” he asked. He was still calm and casual, but his voice was dangerous.

“Um,” I said. Me and my big mouth.

“Don’t worry,” the President said. “You’re going to have a chance to make it all up to me.” He leaned in close so his face was almost touching mine. His face was blank and the most intimidating thing I’ve ever seen. “First, you’re going to tell me everything. Every question I ask, you will answer truthfully. Then, you’re going to repeat these answers again until I’m sure you’ll say the same exact thing tomorrow.”

“What happens tomorrow?” I asked.

The President smiled. It was genuinely happy, but only because I was in a tight spot. “I believe,” he said, “one of the things you said you liked to do as an extracurricular was to act. Well, tomorrow, you’re going to say all these things you say to me today in front of an audience. Think of it as a mock trial.”

A horrible, horrible image of me in a kangaroo court appeared, with everyone at NIU who hated me lining up to say bad things. “Do I get a lawyer?” I asked.

“Nathan, Nathan,” the President said, his smile getting bigger. “You don’t need a lawyer. You’re a witness.”

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Track 1: When the World Comes Down

My name is Nathan Jacobs. And I’ve fucked up.

The first thing you need to understand is my jobs. I can make some firearms (in fact, I’ve got my own firearm company), but mostly I’m the guy who shoots them. The problem, it seems, is figuring who I should work for.

My first employer was the United Nations Investigations, eXtranormal (or UNIX for short.) In fact, those guys were the reason I was in this mess. If not for them, I would have gone to a normal college. Instead, I decided to go to Nowhere Island University to be a soldier and spy. The school taught me how to fight and kill in the most brutal way possible, and UNIX wanted me to spy on them.

Or at least that’s what UNIX claimed it wanted me to do. I should have been suspicious when my handlers didn’t give me any specific objectives or prior training, and I shouldn’t have been shocked when it turned out that I and one other student I’d been sent in with had been sent there to die. The goal was to prevent UNIX from finding the other two spies. In some perverse twist of fate, the two agents who were supposed to make it were compromised. One had gotten killed by literal space Nazis and the other… Hell, I saw what happened to him and I still don’t know what happened to him. Long story short, the other guy supposed to survive had his cover blown to his “buddies” and he had to get some CIA protection. In between, weird shit happened.

Oh, and did I mention the weird shit? Yeah, I actually got to witness a certain clone army rise up in North Korea. If you’re reading this far enough in the future to not know what the Dragon’s Teeth are… good. That means something’s eventually gone right. I also had to deal with other Parahumans and a disturbingly relevant prophecy about the world ending (and the people who believed in it a little too much.)

There was a period of time I had been listlessly working for myself. Mostly that involved poking my nose into places I shouldn’t. Then, at the start of summer, I was approached by Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward and her adopted sister Eliza Henderson. They wanted a friend (the other UNIX infiltrator, his name is John Marshall) and me to go to Japan with them to get talk to some people called the Defenders of Fuji.

Things went horribly wrong. We’d found that they had sent a group of assassins to act as personal bodyguards to a coming entity known as the Architect into a pocket dimension in response to a prophecy made five hundred years ago. Only one of these assassins, known as Heralds, had come back. Somehow, Charlotte had heard that the Defenders were attempting to kill their last Herald.

As soon as John and I had gotten the first part of the escape done, we found ourselves cut off from Charlotte and stuck with the Herald. It turns out that the Herald, Mayu Nakashima, had not had a good time in the pocket dimension. In fact, she was a more than a little psychotic.

Hounded by the Defenders, we had no choice but to turn to fellow NIU classmate and Oni-themed, Boston-based supervillain named Jennifer Kagemoto and her team of super-powered gangsters. She hadn’t brought out the best in Mayu, and Mayu, beneath her creepy mask of cheer, sometimes seemed to be insulted by Jen’s existence. Eventually, after a severe incident between her and Jen and discovering that John and I knew the Architect (he was the other UNIX spy) and kept that from her, she ditched us. Then the Defenders attacked and I ended up shot.

After briefly being captured by the Defenders, confronting an unhinged Mayu, I had been rescued by John, Eliza and the SAS. Whisked away in an experimental jet VTOL called a Fairey Nightdragon, I was informed by Eliza that the safest place for me (and least embarrassing place for Her Majesty’s Government) was NIU.

In the meantime, the Dragon’s Teeth had stepped out of their stronghold in North Korea and simultaneously attacked multiple countries. France, home of UNIX headquarters, had held out for five days despite massive military, law enforcement and civilian casualties. Russia’s forces were being smashed faster than they could be assembled and, with a recent massacre at the Duma and additional assassinations at the start of the invasion, their civilian government was essentially non-existent. India was on the verge of collapse, Pakistan was subsumed. Germany had already been weakened by fighting an influx of space Nazis and had decided Dragon’s Teeth occupation was better than Nazi occupation. Turkey had been trounced by the Dragon’s Teeth and Kurdish allies. China had been shaken by a blatantly Dragon’s Teeth-backed Tibetean uprising and multiple units of Dragon’s Teeth appearing at random throughout the country. A Dragon’s Teeth breakout from North Korea had tied down a good chunk of the Chinese army and simultaneously taken South Korea. Even worse, the number of countries being invaded by the Dragon’s Teeth or reporting fifth-column movements from a technologically advanced force was growing by the day.

Due to my recovery from the collapsed lung I had sustained in Japan, I was mostly confined to bed rest with only the news for company. It was summer, so the student-run channels were down and all I had was the satellite news channels and the internet. Of course, that’s like saying I had run out of some weird local potato chip some kids were making using their mom’s kitchen and only had a free lifetime supply of Lay’s left. Needless to say, I was kind of depressed. At least I was well enough now to pace.

Oddly enough, there were guards outside my door. When I had gotten done from my surgery, I had asked Eliza about it. Her tired face had suddenly become suspicious. “You know,” she said, “I’m not quite sure.”

The thing about Eliza is that she’s a Lupine, a kind of Parahuman. Physically, Lupines have increased senses of smell, bone claws in their hands (and, in most female cases, feet, but Eliza’s an exception,) and some, like Eliza have dog-like ears. They also have extremely strong protective instincts. I could see those instincts go into overdrive, her green eyes narrowing and her red, fox-like ears flattening.

Hurriedly, I said, “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“And you said you could handle Japan…” Eliza said.

“HEY!” I said, suddenly pissed. “I thought we were going to talk to some people. Have a nice vacation. But no! No. Instead, your sister-”

“Oi,” Eliza said warningly, “watch what-“

I continued over her, genuinely pissed. “-changes all the fucking parameters and sends John and me off in a random direction with a collection of nutjobs! I’m sorry, but she fucked up. Now, innocent people are dead because of her and a complete nut is headed straight for what just may potentially be the most powerful being in the entire universe.”

Eliza stood up, her face a mask of white. “I saved your life, Nate,” she whispered, always terrifying in a cockney accent. “All I ask is that you don’t fuckin’ talk shit about my sister.”

I remembered how Eliza, John and an SAS operator had burst into the room I was being held and how Mayu had held a gun to my head. When Mayu had demanded the location of the Architect, Eliza had admitted he was being held by the CIA. Then Mayu had escaped. “Saving me,” I said, “wasn’t helpful.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Eliza said. She stalked out of the room and the next few times I saw her, she barely talked to me.

It was now July. I had been in recovery for two weeks. Eliza would come back in occasionally, but things were a lot chillier with both of us not wanting to admit. She also seemed a lot more suspicious of the guards. “Somethin’s wrong,” she said one visit when I asked how things were going. “Bloody entire campus is on lockdown. No messages in or out, and nobody’s tellin’ me what the bleedin’ fuck’s ‘appenin’.”

“Well,” I said, “at least we’ve got those SAS guys with-”

“They left,” Eliza said. Seeing my incredulous look, she laughed. “Nate, Look at what’s goin’ on back on the Continent. Clone bastards runnin’ around like they own the place, givin’ us the eye from across the channel… They need ‘em over there a ‘ell of a lot more. Especially since we’ve got the nice, highly trained NIU Campus Security to look after us.” She laughed bitterly. “Fuckin’ ‘ell, we’re screwed.”

Meanwhile, I was slowly recovering. I was eventually able to get out of bed and walk around. I’d even stopped taking painkillers and removed my IV. It was such a nice feeling to not be hooked up to a tube, except for the occasional twinge in my chest. My head was so much clearer.

Then one day, I woke up from a nap to find that one of the security cameras was disabled. It was single-directional and, when functional, was set up to give me and potential occupants privacy without sacrificing security while it swiveled on its perch. Now, however, it stood stock still, its normally solid green light now blinking red.

Being a helpful person, I looked outside to tell the CampSec guards that the camera was acting funny. They weren’t there. This was suspicious, to say the least.

The armrest on the bed I’d mostly been confined to had several buttons. Most were off-white or black buttons that controlled the TV. One, a green button with a phone symbol, was for calling the nurse’s station in a non-urgent manner. A yellow button with a needle was there if you were hooked up to some intravenous painkillers (which I no longer was, thank God) and you wanted to get comfortably numb. The other was a red button with an exclamation point. That one you pressed if you were dying.

I pressed the call button. “Hey,” I said, “can anyone tell me where the security guards are?” I waited. Then waited some more. And more. Nothing.

I was about to get up and investigate when a man in scrubs came in. He was an older, tanned man who looked extremely suave. I recognized him, but not from the hospital or medical program. While I was trying to place him, I asked, “Hey, just so you know, the call button isn’t working.”

“Oh yeah,” he said, “that’s been happening a lot recently.” I tried to suppress a frown. It hadn’t happened to me once. “Don’t worry about it. Anyway, I need to medicate you.  Mind if I just poke this into your tube?” He held up a needle with a clear liquid in it.

This guy was not assigned to me in the hospital, and I doubted he was even a doctor. This was an assassination attempt. The camera being off, the guards leaving, the call button not working… the evidence pointed to one thing and one thing only. Turning myself so he couldn’t see me do it, I pressed the big red button.

I had never pressed the big red button before. I had foolishly figured that I could press it and then manipulate the impostor into a position where I could get the drop on him. Instead, alarms on my bed, in the room, down the hall and at the nurse’s station began to blare and flash blue. A gruff, pre-recorded male voice, began saying “BLUE ALERT! PATIENT IN DISTRESS!” and what I assumed to be the same thing translated into Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese over and over again. In the hallway, I could see that the floor had big blue arrows pulsing down the hallway, ending with a bigger one pointing right at the door to my room.

The impostor doctor turned around to look at the arrows. Then he turned to see me getting out of bed, no IV on my arm. There was a dawning look of comprehension on his face as he moved to stab me with the needle.

Luckily, I caught his arm as I slammed into him. We both fell on the floor, but he twisted at the last minute so that we were on our sides instead of me being on top, me pinning his other arm beneath my body. Then he began to slowly inch the needle towards me, despite my grip on his arm.

If someone pulls an automatic pistol on you in a fistfight, a good idea is to grab it by the slide and force them to fire prematurely. That way, they’ll have to spend precious milliseconds trying to pull the slide back in order to cock the gun. There’s a similar principle when an opponent has a needle. You push the plunger before he stabs you. That way, whatever chemicals are in the needle can’t get into your bloodstream. I decided to use that method instead of just trying to avoid being stabbed. It wouldn’t fully render the needle useless (after all, it was still a sharp object and, knowing NIU and the people who worked there, the liquid could be so toxic that even amounts invisible to the naked eye could kill me in fifteen minutes,) but it would be a good idea.

The problem was that I depressed the plunger too quickly, not realizing where the needle was pointing. The liquid squirted out the needle in an arc and landed in my beard, moustache and on my lip. That was not good.

The man, meanwhile, continued to force the needle towards me. I let go of the plunger and was now gripping his wrist with both hands.

Then, out of nowhere, a brown combat boot slammed into the fake doctor’s arm. There was a snap, the man screamed, his arm bent where it wasn’t supposed to and the needle fell away.

I looked up as the impostor was dragged away from me. I looked up. I recognized the two people dragging him off. Ray-Gun and Eric were people I had met in Hell Semester, part of a group of child soldiers from Africa. When I had first met them, they had still appeared malnourished. As a white middle-class kid from the US, meeting and befriending (well, let’s be honest, I didn’t befriend them, they took pity on and befriended me) these scrawny black kids had sort of made me realize some stuff. For instance, this game I was playing had the highest stakes. And everyone else playing played to win.

“Thought you could come in and just kill our friend, huh, you bastard?” Eric asked, putting the man in a choke hold. Ray-Gun, meanwhile had pulled out a MAC Mle 1950, a 9mm 1911 clone with distinctive bronze-colored slide, and was holding it to the impostor’s head. “Talk! Who put you up to this? Howell? Krieger? Antionette? Or did you decide to do it on your own?”

As I wiped off the poison from my lips, I reflected how bad things had just become. “Howell” was President Anthony Carter Newton-Howell, the President of NIU and who I had reason to believe could influence the world outside the campus to a terrifying degree. “Krieger” was Professor (or Sergeant during Hell Semester) Karl Krieger, a South African nutcase who taught for the Academy of Military Science who was intent on removing the President via what I assumed to be lethal means. From what I could gather, he was suborning CampSec and Shadowhaven/AMS students. “Antionette” was Louise Antionette, the head of the Rogues Academy, another sub-school, this one focused on infiltration and espionage. I had no idea why she’d want me dead, but program heads tended to build up a lot of loyalty and favors. Basically, three of the four people mentioned could order a variety of highly trained assassins to kill me.

The fake doctor’s response to being put in an arm bar and having a gun put to his head was to smile in a way that bared his teeth and bite down on something. There was a crunch. Shortly after, he began to foam at the mouth and thrash about. His smile became more rigid and I smelled pee and fecal matter.

The seizures stopped almost as soon as they began. Eric let the body drop. “Eugh,” he said disgustedly, “the bastard shit on me!”

Before we could talk, we heard someone scream. We turned around to see nurse, a muscular man who was probably a student, covering his mouth to stifle a scream. Beside him was a Campus Security officer in patrol gear. The officer drew his sidearm (either a FN FiveseveN or a FN FNX-45 Tactical) and yelled “Drop your weapons! Hands on your heads!”


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Ok, good news! I’m back! I still have a bunch of stuff going on, so I might not be back for long. Hopefully, though, the first volume of NIU will be available for people to buy within about a month.

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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