Track 26: Giving Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I believe him,” Bai said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eliza?” Bai asked. “You’re here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which was nothing,” Hiro said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Track 6: Nightmares

I woke up in a stone room that had been retrofitted as a hospital. The flickering lights were somehow both dim and harsh, and the colors were weirdly muted. I was lying on a bed. To my right, there was a stone wall. To my left was a green and white checkered curtain. In front of me was another bed.

The thing in it was slightly strange. I sat up to get a better look. It seemed to be some kind of charred meat resting the pillow. Then, I realized that it wasn’t just on the pillow. There was more of it under the blanket.

The meat-thing opened its eyes. “Hey, Killer,” it said with a familiar voice. “Glad I could catch you.”

“Jeong!” I yelled.

Suddenly, I realized I was awake. Almost immediately, I realized I had been asleep and lying down. Weirdly enough, I was still in the same room, except now the lighting was much better and the room was full. Across from me, instead of a charred corpse of a comrade, a body bag lay on the bed. In the rest of the room, people were working hurriedly.

I looked around. Again, stone wall on my right, curtain on my left. However, there was one difference. Eliza was sitting on a chair between me and the curtain. “‘Oo the fuck’s Jeong?” she asked. Her fox ears were drooping and her eyes were baggy and bloodshot.

“One of the guys who went with me to Korea,” I said.

“Did you… did you see ‘im out in the woods?” Eliza asked. There was an odd look in her eye that I couldn’t quite place. “Was that why you ‘ad your attack.”

“No,” I said. “I saw someone else.” Then I realized why she was asking. “Who did you see?”

Eliza’s eyes widened for a moment. Then she laughed. “You got me pegged, ‘aven’t you?”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve just seen dead people for the third time. Plus, I saw Charlotte’s… episode, I guess you could call it. I guess I know the symptoms now.”

Charlotte nodded. “Yeah. You would.” She paused for a while. Eventually, she took a deep breath, and said. “I saw me mum and da. My… well, I’d feel guilty sayin’ they’re me real parents, seein’ ‘ow good the BW’s ‘ave been to to me… my biological parents, I guess you’d call ‘em. Then I saw something run after them.”

“So you chased after them,” I said.

“You’d do the same,” she said, somewhat defensively.

“Not denying that.”

She paused. “Would you… would you ‘ave let me fall?” she asked. “Y’know, just kept runnin’ and not looked back?”

“I don’t know…” I said. “Hell, if you’d reacted the way I did, I wouldn’t have even heard you fall.”

“John called your name, remember?” Eliza said. “I didn’t even turn around. Just kept runnin’.”

“Oh.” I considered this for a moment. “I… I don’t blame you. You’re…” I tried to think of a way to describe her Lupine instincts without offending her. “…well, you. I would’ve done it differently, but I’m me.”

“Very eloquent,” Eliza said, a bit of her humor flashing up.

“I was going to say more,” I said. “All this good stuff about how I didn’t think you needed forgiveness and blah blah blah, but you just had to ruin the mood.” I pouted for effect.

Eliza’s smirk widened in appreciation. “Alright, you made your point.” Then, she got serious. “Anyway, what happened down the mountain?”

“Well,” I said, “you know I met Mayu, right?”

“God, yes,” Eliza said.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “There’s a relatively new American saying…”

“Is there any other kind?” Eliza asked teasingly.

I continued, ignoring her. “…basically, don’t stick your dick in crazy.”

“You think she’s crazy?” Eliza asked. “I’ll admit, she seemed a bit off t’me, but so does everyone else in this bloody museum.”

“You should talk to her about her time in that pocket dimension,” I said. “She… she doesn’t come across as innocent. Speaking of that, did they find all the bodies yet?”

“Yeah…” Eliza said. “Poor girl… If she really is mad, can’t say that I blame ‘er. Five ‘undred years…”

“She said that time moved at half-speed there,” I said. “She also said it got steadily slower. Still… I don’t think she came out of there without some blood on her hands. I also think some serious shit went down, and she didn’t cope with it too well.”

“If she did,” Eliza said, “I wouldn’t blame ‘er, poor girl. Our test subject was completely stark raving when ‘e came back, and that wasn’t even a tenth of the time those girls spent in there.” She shuddered.

For a while, we talked about how we’d spent our night. It turned out that the only reason Eliza hadn’t been committed was because a bunch of other people had been seeing dead people. “I mean,” Eliza said about that, “It’s bad enough I’m goin’ crazy, now other people are losin’ it in the exact same way? Fuckin’ ‘ell, oo’s gonna lock me up?” We both laughed.

Eventually, I had to ask, “So, what’s with all the body bags? Are they all the bodies of the heralds?”

“Yeah,” Eliza said. “This German bloke’s cuttin’ ‘em up, tryin’ t’figure out ‘ow they bought it. Kind of interested in what he’ll find.”

“Not much,” an elderly man with a German accent and lab coat said as he walked into the room, pulling a stretcher behind him. “For instance,” he said, “the one I’ve done my most recent preliminary on had her throat cut. Was it by her own hand? Did someone else help her? And what was the motivation? None of it can be answered.”

Nakashima (the caretaker of the castle) followed him, pushing the stretcher. “More importantly,” he said, “what are we going to do about this ice cream now that we can’t fit it in the freezer?” As he spoke, he indicated the three cartons of ice cream on the stretcher.

“If you got any peanut butter cup or chocolate,” I said, “I’ll take it. Maybe Eliza and I will split it.”

“You’re bloody right we’ll split it,” Eliza said indignantly.

“We have cookie dough, vanilla, and chocolate,” Nakashima said.

After a brief discussion between Eliza and I, we relived them of the cookie dough and chocolate, plus a few spoons. Before Nakashima and the coroner could leave, I quickly asked, “Hey, Nakashima, I noticed that you and Mayu have the same family name. Any relation?”

“I’m not sure,” Nakashima said. “I’ll have to check my family tree. It is likely, though.”

“Cool,” I said. “Just curious. Anyway, how is Mayu doing?”

Nakashima had a strange look in his eyes as he replied. “I’m not sure. They have the normal caretakers off their shifts and have brought in agents from other cells.” I suddenly realized the strange look in his eyes wasn’t directed at me, but at his own organization. “I am sure everything is fine, though.” He bowed. “Now, if you will excuse me, I must see if I can get rid of this last carton of ice cream. We must get not let it go to waste.”

“Of course,” the German coroner said. Despite his politeness, I could tell he wasn’t convinced by Nakashima’s reassurances.

When they left, Eliza said, “Fuckin’ ‘ell, this shit is getting’ too political for my likin.’”

“Yeah…” I said. After a moment, I added, “Could you tell your sister I’d like to get out on the next flight?”

John walked in suddenly. “Dude, are you serious? We finished the mission ahead of schedule, and we’re in Japan! It’s time to have fun.”

Eliza and I looked at him. “What?” John asked. “It’s over. Sixteen people went into the pocket dimension, sixteen people matching their descriptions were found. We won. Now, we take some souvenirs and bring them home.”

“I honestly am not sure what to think,” Bai said. “While I would like to agree with John, this all seems mismanaged. They wanted people to protect and shape the Architect, and they ended up with only one, whose sanity is apparently questionable. They wanted the survivors found, so they brought in a large force that deeply indebted them. Then their target walks in, making their expensive force completely unnecessary. What on Earth are they thinking?”

“Maybe some of the Defenders didn’t want the Heralds to survive?” I suggested. “If they got us all amped up, we could take care of a few of them. Then they wouldn’t  draw suspicion on themselves.”

“But that’s…” Eliza said, “that’s horrendously cowardly!”

A voice scoffed from the doorway. “I’ll say. These so-called ‘Defenders of Fuji’ have lost their way.” In walked an arrogant male version of Bai.

Bai, barely containing her eye-roll, said, “Li has some strong opinions about our hosts. He is not hesitant about sharing them.”

“Nor should I be,” Li said. “After all, they claim to be experts at subterfuge. How is that true when they lost half our order to the Ministry of Security?”

Eliza, John and I stared at Li in shock. This was news to us. We had sort of assumed everything was normal with Bai and her organization.

“First off,” Bai said patiently, “Most of them were probably lost before we left the country. Second, this is not the thing you tell outsiders.”

“I apologize,” Li said as unapologetically as possible. “I assumed you would tell your boyfriend.” He turned to us. “Mark my words, these fools are declining. Their elders are senile and uncaring, their youth are either incompetent or jaded, and there are not enough people in between.”

“Why are you here?” Bai asked.

“You’re needed.” Li glanced at Eliza, then said, “Please come. The elders want to brief us.” Bai nodded and walked out. Li bowed respectfully to Eliza. The reason he was so polite was the last time he had been rude to his sister in Eliza’s presence, Li had not had a good time. Eliza nodded coolly in response.

We then waited in silence until Eliza felt that they had left. “Fuckin’ prick…” she muttered darkly.

“Ok,” John said, “You know how I was optimistic earlier? Screw that, we’re all going to kill each other if we stay here too much longer.” He sighed. “Every single time I say things are going well…”

“Yeah, mate,” Eliza agreed blandly. “Every bloody time. Could you just stop?”

 

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Track 4: The Silent Mountain

The entire compound came to life. A PA system began announcing something in Japanese, and the Defenders began to translate for the various guests. As I walked down the hall, I began to realize that most of the people in the castle were not even Japanese. Hell, I think I heard more French and Chinese. But mostly, I just heard helicopters taking off.

We all gathered out in the second section. A group of British officers and Defender elders were trying to organize the mass of people. “OI!” I heard one officer yell at two men in suits yelling at each other in obviously different languages, “Stop arguing with each other and queue up!”

“‘Scuse me,” Eliza asked one of the several people jostling for position, “where does the queue start?”

“The what?” the man asked. I couldn’t place the accent, but he’d obviously learned English from an American or Canadian.

“By queue,” I said, “she means the line.”

The man directed his look of confusion at me. “Bloody ‘ell,” Eliza said, “this is already a right cock-up.”

Eventually, we were given our assignments, a GPS and some flashlights. Then Eliza made us go back for our guns.

“You realize…” I said as I checked the light on my Berretta, “that not only are we unlicensed to carry weapons in Japan, but that these are probably illegal as hell?”

“You also realize I’m not bloody lettin’ any of us go off t’fight fuckin’ ninjas with our bare hands?” Eliza said.

“You know,” Bai said, “I am reasonably certain that this is supposed to be a rescue mission. If we treat it like anything else, it could easily become something else. If it does, this exercise will end badly.”

“You’re reasonably certain, eh?” Eliza asked. “Well, they bloody aren’t.” To emphasize the point, she nodded at a group of Defenders. “Ever since they first contacted us, they’ve been bloody vague on whether or not they think their harem of harridans are going to come back willingly. You’re right, it’s gonna get someone killed. I’m just makin’ sure it won’t be someone I care about.”

“Ugh,” John said. “I knew I had a bad feeling about all this.”

Then and there, I made a vow to myself be as uninvolved as possible. I would just help everyone find these Heralds, then I would get the hell out of the country, preferably with John in tow. I recognized it was probably one I was going to break because I couldn’t leave anything alone.

As we headed to our zone, Eliza politely asked Bai, “So… ‘ow’s Li doin?” The sun was almost fully set, and we had our lights out. The mountain path was steep and the path was crumbly, so we had to watch our step.

“He…” Bai said, hesitating. Bai, in her own way, was just as loyal as Eliza, which was probably one of the reasons they were good friends. That probably made it hard to talk about her brother. Li, if I was being charitable, could be best described as a complete asshole. Bai, however, wouldn’t ask Eliza for help, mostly because Li’s behavior brought out the worst in Bai. “He is always better behaved around our elders. How is your sister?”

“She’s bein’ difficult,” Eliza said. “She told father an’ me this entire thing was gonna be simple. She left out ‘ow squirrely these Defender people are and her little merger idea.” She sighed. “I’m only a tiny bit away from calling father and ‘aving ‘im shut Char down.”

“Speaking of Charlotte,” I said, “Remember when we were about to take off? There was that weird bit where she was looking out the window. What was that about?”

“Yeah…” John said. “That was… strange.”

Eliza looked away. “She saw mother… her mother, I suppose, bangin’ on the window, like she was tryin’ to get in.”

“That is… that is completely insane!” John said.

“It isn’t just her though,” I said. Everyone turned to look at me. “Remember Richard? When the factory got set up, he… came back. He was trying to warn me about something.”

“What the hell do you mean he ‘came back?’” John asked. “What, did he have a chat?”

“Mostly he just came back and yelled random shit at me that made it seem like he’d talked with a certain death goddess,” I said. “Then he kind of disintegrated and blew away.”

“Are you sure he died?” Bai asked. “There was a lot of confusion when…”

“I saw him die,” I said. “His throat was cut right before my eyes, and it definitely severed all his major veins. I don’t remember if we checked his pulse, but we didn’t bother to bandage him. If he was alive when we left the elevator, he wouldn’t have been for much longer.”

“A simple yes would have sufficed,” Bai said. Looking back on it, there might have been a bit of a teasing note in her voice, but I was so used to Eliza having a monopoly on that sort of thing.

“Just explaining my… HOLY FUCKING SHIT!”

Suddenly, something that looked like the Japanese equivalent of a WWII jeep appeared right in front of us. When I say “right in front of us,” I mean one more step and I would have kicked it in the tire. The path was too small for it to fit comfortably, so it instantly began to slide down the mountain, crashing into vegetation and mostly knocking it out of the way. When the crashing finally stopped, we moved forwards and peered down the mountain.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Eliza said in amazement. “Where’d that come from?”

“It… it’s like a Jumper,” I said. Jumpers, as I had witnessed first hand, had a completely silent teleport. One second, they’d be there, then they’d be gone. Or five feet closer. One that I personally knew, Jennifer Kagemoto, liked to creep people out with that trick.

“That must mean the warpstone let loose,” Bai said.

“Getting back to that jeep,” John said, “I can’t even fucking see it. I’m not sure if it’s because the mountain is so steep or if it just went back to where it came from.”

Eliza, considering this, shone her light onto a tree further up the path. “If it went back to where it came from,” she said, “then why’s that there?”

I followed the beam. There, lying on the ground, something metallic glinted. It hadn’t been there before the car. We all edged towards it.

“That,” John said, “looks like an assault rifle.” He picked it up. “It’s a Type 89. The Japanese use it in their military.” John was a fluent Japanese speaker. I had woken up multiple times to him yelling Japanese phrases in his sleep. “Nice, yet pretty standard.”

“Let’s get a bloody move on,” Eliza said. “This place gives me the creeps.”

We continued on. As we did, we saw more and more random detritus, including food packaging, weapons, gas cans, and even a few more cars. All were in mostly pristine condition. Occasionally, the radio would crackle and we would hear reports of people finding something particularly strange.

Eventually, a German-accented voice called in. “Hey, we think we found your Sensei.”

“Is he cooperating?” a voice asked. It sounded like the commander of the British forces.

“He’s not doing much of anything,” the German said. “Someone cut his bloody head off. It was recent, but not too recent. I’d say he’s been dead at most an hour, he hasn’t even begun to attract flies. Also, the ground is pretty bloodless. The blighter must have been moved.”

Another voice, this one Arabic, asked, “What did it?”

“Some kind of sharp object,” the German said. “Very sharp, and whoever did it must have been either very strong or had a lot of adrenalin. There’s also a lot of stabbing and slash marks on the body, as well as quite a bit of blunt force trauma. Whoever killed him either didn’t decapitate him on the first blow, or had some issues they wanted to work out.”

After that, the bodies kept piling up. An hour or two later, five of the fifteen heralds had been found, all dead. None of them had died naturally. Three were hard to tell if they were suicides or murders, one definitely was murdered. The fifth was weird. We didn’t hear any more than that over the radio.

A little after that, Eliza said, “Holy ‘ell, these poor girls… What the hell ‘appened to ‘em?”

“Well,” I said, “if we really want to know that, we either have to find a survivor or a diary.”

“God…” John said, “can you imagine what a survivor would be like? They’ve lived five hundred years in a place you’re supposed to just sleep in. I’m not sure which’d be worse: being with the same fifteen other people, or slowly watching them die.”

“I think,” Bai said, “that if even a few of those deaths were murders, there must have been a bit of relief for the last one. Then they’d start to go insane.”

“Maybe the last one’d be ok,” John said.

“John,” I said, “you do realize that studies show locking someone in solitary confinement is almost guaranteed to drive them crazy?”

“Almost,” John said, with forced hopefulness. “Key word’s almost.”

Suddenly, Eliza stopped. “Did you see that?” She seemed to be hyper-focused on something far ahead in the undergrowth.

“See what?” I asked. Eliza didn’t respond. Instead, she broke into a frenzied sprint. “Eliza!” I called out. “Eliza, wait!”

Eliza didn’t listen, running with all the speed an adrenalin-frenzied Lupine could muster. In case you were wondering, there’s a reason Lupines have a separate segment in the Olympics. Only Lupines can flat-out sprint for over two kilometers. She quickly pulled ahead of us, running further and further into the darkness. Soon, we would only be able to see her bobbing flashlight.

I hurried even faster. That proved to be a mistake. The mountain trail, if you could even call it a trail, was crumbling from years, maybe centuries of erosion. The path had given out several times before, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when it gave out under my feet.

“NATE!” John called out. He called out my name a second before I realized I was falling. Before I could draw in breath to ask what was wrong, I found myself tumbling down the slope. For God knows how long, I found myself bouncing down the mountain like a basketball.

Eventually, I managed to grab onto a root. Looking up, I could see the pinprick of light that indicated John and Bai’s position far above me. “Nate!” John yelled. “You ok?”

“Yeah,” I shouted back, “I’m…” I heard a creaking sound. In the dim light provided by the people above me, I couldn’t see what I was holding on to. But I did realize I was lower than I was before. “Oh fuck me…” There was a snap and I was falling again.

“NATE!” John yelled again. His voice got fainter and fainter as I fell.

Finally, I stopped falling. That, and the fact that everything felt fine (well, reasonably fine for what had just happened,) was the good news. The bad news was that I had landed in something thorny. “John!” I yelled, “I’m fine!”

“Jesus Christ, Nate!” John yelled. “Where the fuck are you?”

“Bottom of the mountain!” I said. “At least, that’s what it feels like! And before you ask, I’m fine!”

“Do you still have your light and radio?” Bai asked.

“No,” I said. “Light, radio, and GPS are all gone in the fall. I have my phone, but it’s pretty dead.” I cursed my stupidity. Just because my cPhone could run for a month without dying didn’t mean I shouldn’t check it before I go out into the fucking wilderness. Especially when it only took a few seconds to charge. I then double checked my inventory for anything useful. “I still have my pistols. One of them has a light on it.”

“Shine it up here,” Bai said. “We need to know your position.”

I did. It took John and Bai a good fifteen minutes to spot the weak underbarrel light on my Berretta. Finally, John said, “Listen, Nate, stay right there. We’re coming down to get you.”

“NO!” I called out. “You have to find Eliza!”

“You’re at the bottom of a hill,” John said. “There’s a good chance you’ve got a concussion or a break. Eliza has her radio. When she snaps out of it, she can call us. If you suddenly go unconscious because your brain’s been scrambled like an egg…”

“John,” I said, “I’m fine. You know my position, you don’t know Eliza’s at all. Go find her!”

John and Bai were silent for quite a while. Or maybe they were talking, and I was just too far away to hear them. Finally, John called down, “Ok, we’re going to find Eliza. What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to try to get back to the castle or meet up with another group,” I said. “Don’t worry about me. Find Eliza!”

“Ok,” John said. “We’ll go do that. Be careful down there, ok?”

I then saw the faint pinpricks of light that indicated John and Bai move off, presumably to find Eliza. Once they were out of sight, I got up. When I did, I realized I was nowhere near as fine as I thought I was. A current of pain shot through my left leg when I stood on it.

When I was finally standing and leaning against a tree (I knew if I sat I would never be able to get up on my own power,) I took stock of my situation. I was in a strange forest-covered mountain with no map or GPS, no phone, and only one good leg. I did have two pistols with three spare mags each and a light. And the best thing? Nobody was trying to kill me.

At least, that’s what I thought. Then something in the bushes moved.

 

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Track 3: Their House

Two days later, I discovered to my great annoyance that when Charlotte had said “deep in the mountains,” she had meant it. We got out of her Maybach in front of a clearly renovated Japanese castle. It was located in a small valley that was heavily forested. The road we had taken had passed through more farming towns (more than a few of which had to deal with cramped mountain spaces) than suburbs. Five hundred years ago, this would have had to be a nightmare to pass through due to the dense forest and surprisingly deep river. Now, Charlotte’s convoy (which consisted of us in her Maybach and her bodyguards in several Land Rovers and a Jaguar F-coupe on point) could pass through quite easily thanks to a series of strategically placed bridges.

I was in the front seat, right next to Eliza. For the entire journey, I split my attention between the road and watching her. Unsurprisingly, she was highly intent on her surroundings. Lupines, especially the sub-type she was part of, tended to be hard-wired for guard duty. From the way she scanned the road, I could swear that she half-expected an IED to blow up.

“You worried about something?” I asked her.

“Nah,” she said, “just get a bit jumpy on guard duty. I love it.”

“Really?” I asked. “I know when I had to rescue Nari from North Korea, that just made me even more stressed.”

“I guess I hate that part,” Eliza said reflectively. “But it’s the adrenalin rush, innit? You know in your heart that the people under your care probably aren’t in any danger, but your body gives you that rush all the same, right?”

“I don’t ever get that,” John said.

“Yeah,” I said, “I just feel this sort of dread when I’m responsible for anyone other than myself.”

“Fackin’ ‘ell,” Eliza said. “No wonder you two are always doing something stupid. That’s the only way you can get that buzz, innit? If it’s just a Lupine thing, that’d explain why you baselines make such a right mess o’things.”

“So…” Charlotte said, “guarding people… gives you some kind of rush?”

“Kind of,” Eliza said. “It’s sort of like ‘ow you’d used to smoke some ganj, except insteada makin’ me all zombie-like, it makes me focused. Everything slows down, but I’m faster. I think faster, I move faster, and I perceive things faster. I’m in control.” She then seemed to realize that Charlotte must have been wondering if she had been put in dangerous situations to satisfy an addiction, so Eliza added, “But when shit actually goes down, like it did last summer, it’s a bad trip.” She then added accusatorially, “Like that fuckin’ shite you tried to get me on in Year Nine.”

Charlotte, flustered, responded with, “It… it was a bad reaction. That was quality.”

Eliza made a grunt in affirmation and turned back to her driving. Eventually, she said, “This place is kind of a nightmare to drive in.”

“At least we can drive,” I said. “I’d hate to walk through this gunk.”

We were interrupted by a voice over the radio. “This is point,” one of the guards said. “We’re at Kage Keep.”

“Good,” Eliza said. “I was getting tired.”

The Defenders of Fuji had added visitor parking to their keep. Despite the fact that it was paved, it had been there long enough for the walls to have been obscured by trees again. There was a ramp leading up to a gate, indicating that the ground floor of the castle was higher than the parking lot. Surrounding the lot was a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The point vehicle was already past the security gate and had parked among a variety of cars, ranging from luxury brands I’d definitely heard of to what seemed to be budget vehicles I’d never seen before in my life.

Eventually, we found a space. When the entire convoy had disembarked, the ornate, yet functional gate opened. Out strode three Japanese men. “Ah,” one of them said. “The Fourth Order of the Round Table, I presume?”

“Yes,” Charlotte said. “That is us. I am Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward.” She then bowed and said, “Ohaio… Gozaimas?” She said the greeting like she was asking if she was saying the right thing.

“For an honored guest such as yourself,” our greeter said, returning the bow, “that is close enough. You must want to meet with the Grandmasters. We’ll show your bodyguards to their rooms.”

Charlotte looked a little leery about being separated, but she did as she was told. The first man led her through the door. One of the other greeters began talking to the bodyguards. The third came to talk us.

“Henderson-san? Marshall-san? Jacobs-san?” he said, bowing to each of us. Each of us bowed in turn, John faster than the rest of us. “My name is Nakashima, and I’ll be your guide. A sister group, the Dragons of Life, have requested you have rooms near them.”

Eliza laughed. “That’ll be Bai. We’ve met before.”

“I see!” Nakashima said. “Miss Feng-san seems to be the most social one there. Please, follow me.”

We followed him through two gates. When we got through the gate, I stopped short. In front of us was the most beautiful house I had ever seen. Behind it were two more sets of walls, one lower with a ramp leading up to it, and one even higher. The house itself was a three-story Japanese mansion that looked like it was designed to impress guests and repel intruders. What looked to have been a surrounding drill yard had sadly been half-replaced by more parking. The cars in this lot were much more uniform, mostly being the kind of thing a Japanese salaryman would drive to work in.

“This keep has been in the hands of the Defenders of Fuji for almost a thousand years,” Nakashima said. “It’s been modernized of course. Sadly, though, there’s been talk of abandoning it.”

“Why?” I asked. “Look at it! It’s beautiful.”

“Yeah,” Charlotte said, “but it’s in the middle of nowhere, innit?”

“Yeah,” Nakashima said, scratching the back of his head, “there’s that. But being caretaker of it for a few years makes you appreciate it. It’s expensive, it’s useless, and the security upgrades convinced the Grandmasters that the Ninja was dead, but it is a wonderful place for meditating. It would kill me if they sell it to some developer to tear down.”

“What do you do here?” I asked.

“I work with a skeleton crew, those other guys you saw,” he said. “I’m a cross between janitor, security guard and IT specialist. If you know someone who would want to buy it and could afford it…”

“I could be that guy in a few years,” I said.

“Hopefully you’ll have a chance,” Nakashima said. “Anyway, I need to get you guys settled in. You’ll be in the third level.” He pointed to the third section.

The second and third sections probably used to be almost carbon copies of the first, apart from smaller drill yards and bigger houses. The differences came from the modifications. The second section had several helipads, at the time mostly taken up by British army helicopters. When we got to the top of the third ramp, I was able to see over the parapets.

“This is beautiful…” I said in awe. Unlike I had first thought, we were not at the bottom of the valley. It was hard to tell because the trees masked the ground, but you could tell there was a dip between us and the mountain on the opposite side. The setting sun shone off the leaves and lit up the mountain. I only saw it for a moment before we were led into the third area.

Then, we were led into the third section. There, we saw that the drill yard had been replaced by a garden. We walked through a path that cut through some of the more maze-like areas. “Before you pass through the door,” Nakashima said, “would you please give me any weapons you have? We apologize, but we like to make sure that only our organization has weapons on our premises.” He held open a bag

John and I handed over our weapons over without much hesitation (John had a Bren 10 and a knife, I had my Beretta and my SIG.) Eliza, meanwhile, seemed suspicious. “What if… what if we get attacked?”

Nakashima nodded. “I understand. Apart from your word we will keep all our guests safe, you may need some other facts.” He pointed to a place above the door. “Do you see that black dot?”

“No,” John and I said in unison.

“Yeah,” Eliza said.

“That is actually a camera,” Nakashima said. “It can see the entire approach. It is connected to an automated system that identifies both people and suspicious behavior. There are hundreds of other cameras that come in visible, infrared, and night vision variants. The system has around a hundred and fifty percent coverage of all public and restricted behavior. We also have metal, motion, and explosive detectors in strategic areas.”

“So,” Eliza said skeptically, “there’s no way to beat the system?”

“Unless an intruder had inside help,” Nakashima said, “No. Even then, it would still be difficult. We know, we spent much time trying to defeat it.” Maybe it was just me, but he sounded sad by how impenetrable the defenses of his ancestral home was.

“And if the power’s cut?” Eliza asked.

“Well,” Nakashima said with a bow, “if each of the four generators, seven batteries, and external lines were cut, they would have to wait until a windless night.” As he said that, I suddenly remembered that each section had its own windmill. It would also not be that difficult to replace the roof shingles with solar panels.

“What about cyber attacks?” Eliza asked. “The system’s right fancy. Sounds like you’d ‘ave to use a lot of computers.” I noted that she had calmed down enough to hand over her CZ-75. Also, this objection was somewhat half-hearted.

“The computers that control the security system are not connected to the internet,” Nakashima said. “They are connected to the wireless, but they are set up to be extremely difficult to talk to. Nothing is unhackable, but it would be highly unlikely to hack this system successfully and not be detected.”

Nakashima then led us inside. After a brief pause to check us in and store and label our weapons, he led us to the third floor. “You two,” he said, indicating John and me, “will have this one.” The door was opened to reveal a small servant’s room that looked over the walls into the setting sun. On the floor were some tatami mats and two dressers. He then turned to Eliza. “You will be rooming in the next room with…”

“Bai!” Eliza said. The rest of us looked up the corridor. Down the corridor, a short Asian girl with short hair came down the corridor, holding a mug of something hot.

Bai smiled. “Ah, Nakashima-san. You found my friends.” She made a bow that was modified to keep her tea from spilling. “Thank you.”

Nakashima bowed back. “Not a problem, Feng-san. I shall leave you to catch up.”

“Very well,” Bai said. “We do have much to discuss.” She waited a bit for him to leave, then she said, “I don’t know why I waited. He’ll hear everything we say anyway.”

“Really?” I said. “You were good at finding weak spots in NIU’s security.”

“There were two differences there,” Bai said, ushering us into her room. It was a carbon-copy of ours and right next door. “The first is that NIU was designed as a school first, a social location second, and a secure area third. The other difference is that I had the fraternal order of janitors to help me.” She closed the door. “Nakashima is the closest thing this place has to a janitor, and we are reasonably friendly, but he would never help me defeat the security system.”

“That’s probably why you respect him,” John said.

“One of them,” Bai said. “He is also one of the few people here not intent on throwing out the baby along with the bathwater.” She paused, then asked, “That is the correct phrase, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Eliza said. “So, is ‘e some kind of conservative or somethin’?”

Bai laughed. “None of these people could be called conservative,” she said. “The vast majority just want the Prophecy to be over. Also… the Defenders used to be one of the most prominent Ninja clans.”

“Really?” Eliza asked. “Think they could show us some cool ninja tricks?”

“The key phrase,” Bai said, “is ‘used to.’ When static emplacements began to fall out of favor for defensive maneuvers, Ninjas began to suffer an identity crisis. The final straw for the defenders came when they upgraded the security on this castle. It wasn’t as formidable as it is today, but they couldn’t get in undetected with traditional ninja techniques.”

“That…” Eliza said, “must ‘ave been rough.”

“It was,” Bai said. “Now they’re essentially ninjas who don’t want to be ninjas. They’ve turned to more modern techniques and seem to be intent on forgetting the old ways. After the Prophecy is completed, I think they’ll dissolve.”

“That sounds… so sad,” I said.

Bai nodded. “Yes, but it is understandable. There are people that I have to deal with in my group that…”

Suddenly, we heard running. We listened as the feet got closer. They stopped outside our door and turned into a knock. “Come in,” Bai said.

The door opened, revealing Nakashima. “The warpstone is almost spent,” he said. “They’re coming.”

 

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Track 24: The Architect Revealed

I stared at the message for a moment. Mubashir wanted to meet me at the male locker rooms in the Sun Tzu student center. Tonight. What had he found that needed me to come so quickly? Why was he risking texting me?

Still, I had a day of classes. As usual, I was extremely distracted by current events. I had been ever since Washington had happened. Mubashir’s cryptic message wasn’t helping, but I was so off-task that the effect was probably negligible.  Or maybe it was able to finally focus me… but not on my studies.

It eventually came to me that there was something Mubashir had found out that he didn’t necessarily want to tell Bai. But if that was the case, what? I thought I made it clear that he could trust her. Did Mubashir have some reason not to? Was there something he wanted to keep among UNIX agents? Or maybe it wasn’t so friendly. If that was the case, I decided I’d bring John. After all, Mubashir hadn’t told me to come alone.

When John came back to the dorm, I told him about the message. John, upon hearing it, said, “So… you want me to go to a pool locker room… at midnight… because you think someone might try to get the drop on you.” He shook his head. “Nate… first off, it’s Moob. Second, if you’re so paranoid, don’t go.”

“But don’t you want to find out what he wants to tell us?” I asked. “Personally, I’m curious. Plus, this way I won’t accidentally wake you up when I come back.”

John shook his head. “No, I am not curious. Actually, I’m going to be… doing something with Bai.”

From the way he said that, it was pretty obvious what John was planning on doing. “Ok,” I said. “You’re doing it in her room, right?”

“Yeah,” John said. “Anyway, here’s hoping you don’t get into any trouble.”

Eventually, I found myself waiting for Mubashir in the appointed place. The men’s locker room for Sun Tzu’s athletic center was as deserted as you’d expect when I got there at eleven fifty. There was an odd design to it, probably to keep people from peeking in: there was a small sort of antechamber before the actual changing area. I was waiting in the main changing area, just pacing around.

And I spent a lot of time pacing around. Ten minutes after I had arrived, Mubashir still hadn’t gotten there. I checked my phone. 12:01. That wasn’t late. Then I paced some more. Then I checked my phone again. 12:13. Slightly annoyed by the fact that I hadn’t checked my phone a minute earlier, I continued pacing. At around twelve thirty, I was considering heading back.

I was by the wall where the exit to the antechamber, but at the opposite end when I was thinking this. Just as I had decided to head back to the dorm, I heard the door to the main hall open. After a pause, Mubashir stumbled through the archway and into the dressing room almost as if he had been flung. He landed on a bench, motionless.

I ran towards him, unthinking. What had happened? Had he been attacked? I bent down to examine his body. He was breathing, but unresponsive. On his neck was what appeared to be a recent needle puncture mark. Before I could process this, something metal slammed into the back of my head with a large amount of force.

For a few seconds (or maybe more, or maybe less,) all I could see was white. I could feel people dragging me away. I struggled ineffectually as my vision cleared and time started to pass as normal. However, I sensibly stopped when the barrel of a gun was jammed into my temple. A glance from my now mostly recovered vision revealed that my captors were two of the four remaining Al-Qaeda members. Mubashir was the third. I suddenly realized the reason Mubashir wanted to meet me: he didn’t. Someone, possibly one of the two people who had a death grip on my arm, had stolen his phone.

“You know,” a voice said from the archway to the antechamber, “you do seem to have a talent for making enemies, Jacobs.” There, leaning casually against the festively patterned tile wall, was Salim. The side of his face that had been scarred in a drone attack was facing me. In his hand, he held a silenced pistol. The magazine was dripping blood, and with a start, I realized the blood was mine.

“I’m not sure it’s the quantity that will do me in,” I said, glancing at the floor between where I was being held and where Mubashir lay, “but the quality.” There, lying hopelessly out of reach of both Mubashir and I, were my Berretta and my SIG. I looked at both my captors. They must have disarmed me as they had dragged me away.

“I must admit,” Salim said, as he slowly walked towards me, pausing to kick my weapons even further out of reach, “I did not expect you to die complimenting your killer, Killer.” He chuckled at his play on words, then continued, “You had quite the mouth on you when last we were in this situation.”

“I guess I learned my lesson,” I said, remembering how many times I had been stabbed for mouthing off. “But before I die, can I ask…”

“No,” Salim said, flicking the safety of his pistol off. He raised it to my heart, but was interrupted when we heard a moan.

Upon seeing Salim’s confused look, I said, “Ah. So you didn’t just want to knock him unconscious, did you?”

Salim, his face hardening, turned around. “No,” he said. “I gave him two hundred milliliters of heroin. He was supposed to die.” As he spoke, he walked to where he had left Mubashir.

As Salim stalked off to the ex-comrade he’d failed to poison, I was able to see Mubashir. He had managed to get into a sitting position, his face in his hands. A little later, he made a retching sound, and a mixture of blood and vomit poured from his mouth. I gagged in sympathy and, maybe I was imagining things, but I could feel the trigger of my captor’s gun pull back.

Mubashir looked up at Salim. “Let me guess,” he said, “Takeda and Brosnan told you, didn’t they?”

Suddenly, things began to make sense. Either Brosnan or Takeda had grown tired of me, but had failed to find an opportunity to do the deed themselves. Still, that left one question. “But why’d they rat you out?” I asked Moob. “I mean, I understand why they hate me, but…”

“If you really care that much,” Salim said bitterly, “apparently we’re not the only ones Mubashir has betrayed.” Mubashir, despite still seeming very ill, looked like he was about to correct it, then thought better. Salim continued. “I mean, the CIA still has him for the moment, but hey, who knows when he’ll stab them in the back?”

“Do you… do you want to know why I did it?” Mubashir asked. As he said this, he turned around to stare Salim directly in the face. He still looked like he was going to vomit blood again, but there was a note of pure hatred in his voice that I’d only heard once before.

“I don’t need to,” Salim said contemptuously. “How much did they offer you to betray your brother Muslims? Was it five figures? Six?”

Mubashir laughed hysterically. Salim dropped his gun and my captors nearly let me go. If they had, I wouldn’t have tried to escape. I was transfixed. Finally, Mubashir was able to control himself. “You think anyone would have to pay me to hurt you? You who dragged me away from my family? You who call all of Islam brother while you murder, maim, and rape them? You, who follow a book of peace and love by murdering children?” He smiled. “No. I sought them out, you semi-human pestilence.” He then spat at Salim.

Salim did not spend half a second to wipe off the bloody saliva. Instead he raised his pistol. Apparently, it was some kind of a machine  pistol (probably a Stetchin,) because there was a three-round instead of a single shot.

For a second, I thought time had completely and utterly frozen. Bits of Mubashir’s brain and skull hung seemingly suspended in mid-air. I could also see Salim’s expression slowly change to one of confusion. Then Salim raised his gun. Mubashir still remained sitting. Salim’s bullets and Mubashir’s expelled bits of head were still suspended in midair. Salim leaned around Mubashir’s head. When he saw the odd sight behind, Salim said something that, based on the context, was probably Arabic for What the hell…?

After considering the scene from a few angles, he began walking back towards me. “I do not know what is going on,” he said, clearly beyond disturbed, “but I think it is time to conclude our…” He stopped. He then tried to take a step, but for some reason it seemed that his feet had been stuck to the floor, as if by some kind of glue.

He tried again, his face now one of abject terror. He tried the other foot. The same thing happened. He then dropped his gun to pull at his leg. I suddenly noticed that his feet were changing color.

Then, from behind him, Mubashir turned to face us. As he did so, the ejected bone and gray matter began to fly back into their correct places and Mubashir began speaking. It sounded like Arabic to me, but the other people in the room who actually spoke it didn’t seem to want to engage him in conversation. The one who had put a gun to my head adjusted his aim and began firing at Mubashir. The first few shots hit Moob perfectly in the center mass leaving big red dots, but Mubashir didn’t seem to mind. The rest turned to sand mid-flight, reflecting beautifully in the locker room light.

Meanwhile, Salim was shrinking. Actually, shrinking was the wrong word. My next thought was that he was melting from the feet up. Then I realized the brown puddle he was forming wasn’t liquid, but stone. Salim realized this and began screaming. At the same time, whispering voices, the same ones I had heard at the beginning of the semester, began to start up. With a jolt, I realized that they sounded a lot like Moob’s voice.

All of this proved to be too overwhelming for my captors. Letting go of me, they edged out towards the locker room’s rear entrance. That one led directly into the pool that I had never used, despite having brought my swimsuit. When they were out of my sight and safely past Mubashir, they began running.

I was too transfixed on what was happening to Salim to notice. As he shrunk to thigh-height, his screams began to take on a gargling quality and water began to flow from his mouth. The more he shrunk, the stronger the flow. Eventually, I could see what he was becoming: a water fountain made out of some kind of yellowish-brown sandstone.

I was distracted from watching the sick transformation when Salim’s two friends ran back into the room. However, they came from the antechamber. They must have been looking over their shoulder, because they bounced off Mubashir. They looked up to see him staring down at them, still muttering to himself. The two sorry bastards sprang up and began to run in the opposite direction and began to run in place. The whole thing reminded me of a Scooby-Doo episode… until they started going backwards.

In horror, I watched as they were slowly dragged backwards. They then began to start changing as well. By the time they had cleared the bench Mubashir was standing in front of, they had become oddly stretched and starting to take on a rectangular shape. There were also square shapes on them that looked like doors and their skin was taking on a metallic sheen. They could still beg and scream. I know because they did.

I fell to my knees, hyperventilating. I couldn’t do anything. Even if I still had my guns, it wasn’t like I could stop Moob with them. I mean, two other people had already tried that and I couldn’t even say it had made him mad. Running also seemed to be completely pointless. After all, that was the first thing I had tried when he had done this to me.

Dammit, I thought to myself as I doubled over and sank to my knees, suffocating yourself isn’t going to solve anything. Since I didn’t have a paper bag, I used my hands to form a mask. I then tried to modulate my breathing, but still, it was hard. I felt myself slipping into unconsciousness, either from rapid breathing or the whack Salim had given me. It wasn’t until the screaming stopped that I was able to start to regain control myself. It was even longer until I felt comfortable standing up.

When I did, I saw that Salim was now finally a fountain. There was an octagonal pool, and in the center there was a square with a circle on top. Water was filling it up slowly. Mubashir was still standing near that bench where he had been tossed what seemed like a lifetime ago. He and the other voices had fallen silent, but he was still staring blankly off into space.

Keeping as much distance between the fountain that used to be Salim and myself, I edged closer to Mubashir. “Moob?” I asked cautiously. “You ok?” There was no response, but as I edged closer, I noticed we had a new row of lockers. That must have been where the other two Al-Qaeda guys went.

After I called his name a few times, Mubashir suddenly looked up. “Nate?” He asked, blinking dazedly. “What happened?” He paused, then saw what had once been Salim. “When did we get a fountain?”

I stared at him. I’m not sure if it was in horror, shock, or confusion. As I was struggling to sort that out and say what happened, I heard the door to the main hallway get kicked in. Bai and John then burst into the changing room, pistols drawn.

“Nathan!” Bai said, somewhat surprised. “You’re alive! I was sure Salim was going to kill you.” She then paused, then asked with a hint of jealousy, “Why do you have a fountain?”

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Track 22:United Fist

“So they’re gone?” Eliza asked. “May, Andy and that Timothy chap?”

It was the first Thursday in November, and Charlotte and Eliza were walking with me to a class. “Well,” Charlotte said, “they were the kind of people who don’t really need this place. I must admit, I am quite happy I was able to meet them. May and Andy were quite lovely.” She sighed. “I must admit though, Mr. Cheung is a little too good at selling your items.”

Eliza giggled. “Alright, sis, ‘ow many guns did ‘e convince Father to purchase?”

Charlotte sighed. “The bodyguards are going to replace the surplus SA-80s with the assault rifles you’re making?”

“You mean he’s already sold the Macabee?” I asked. “We’ve only sent it to testing recently.” I sighed. “Nari’s been pretty busy. I have no idea how she does it, but she’s already got the blueprints for three underbarrel weapons.”

“Really?” Eliza asked. “I thought it was just two.”

“Well,” I said, “I suppose shortening the shotgun so it can fit on the Ballpeen might not count, but the internals are radically different.” I shook my head. “That girl just does not stop. And these are probably going to be the best of the bunch.”

“Well,” Eliza said, “You did promise May you’d take a break, didn’t you?” She gave me a threatening stare. “And you are keeping that promise, right, Nate?”

“I am,” I promised. And I was keeping the promise. It was kind of hard, since the nightmares were still very bad. Yet I was getting sleep now. It wasn’t much, but among the time spent alternately trying to go to sleep and fighting it, the dream flashbacks, and the accusatory voices blaming me for more misery and death than I was willing to take stock of, there were now patches of nothing. These, I have to admit, I was eternally grateful for.

I was considering explaining the situation when we walked into the building our classes were going to be in (none of us had the same one.) I decided against it. After all, the last time I had admitted something like that, I had broken down. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience. My parents and my psychologist had been kind, but I had hated admitting my problem even more than the problem itself.

Plus, Bai had seen us. “Ah,” she said, standing up from one of the chairs next to the door, “I’ve been waiting to talk with you.”

“What about?” Eliza asked with a mixture of dread and exasperation.

“Something that won’t end with Nate and I screaming at each other.” Bai sounded business-like as usual, but there seemed to be a bit of wry, self-deprecating undercurrent. I may have imagined it, but it was probably the closest to an apology I’d get from her. Bai then indicated the other people in the reception area/common room a slight nod. “It isn’t the kind of thing that’s their business, though. Do you have a few minutes? I have a few places to go where we won’t be overheard.”

Ignoring one of the reporters on the TV talking about how Russia was still trying to take a more active role in Germany’s fight against the Grenzefrontier and another talking about what appeared to be a Chinese crackdown on dissidents near the Korean border, I said, “That seems like a good idea. I’ve got thirty minutes.”

“Eliza and I only have ten,” Charlotte said. “But if it’s important…”

“It’s important and it may be quick,” Bai said. “You may want to bundle up.”

We, of course, hadn’t even been able to unzip our coats. But that didn’t stop us from following Bai out into the wind and snow. The day was the coldest one yet, but seeing as it was only November and considering what last year had been like, the weather would get much, much more arctic-like. It was still awful with the wind howling occasionally.

“Nathan,” Bai said casually, leading us into an alley, “I assumed you became a bartender to pick up some conversations?” The alley in question was a constant wind tunnel. The howling I was hearing probably was mostly coming from that one place.

“Yeah,” I said, mentally bracing myself for the windchill. I didn’t brace adequately, and the gale cut through my coat like shrapnel. “Shame that no one at The Drunken Mercenary trusts me with their deepest, darkest secrets.” It was true. I had heard a lot about people’s feelings about how shitty the drinks were, opinions on my (perceived) background and origin, and plenty of interpersonal tidbits that would only be worth the tip they left if they came from celebrities.

“That was the same reason I became a janitor,” Bai said. “Like you, I didn’t learn anything interesting. Or at least I thought so.” As we walked further into the artificial vortex, Bai raised her voice to be heard. “The janitors are somewhat fraternal, and pass down all the best spots to avoid being heard. Apparently, in winter, the wind in this particular alleyway disables all the microphones. There aren’t any windows to see us from, either. Now, we just need to find a place shielded from the outside view and face the wall. Then no one can hear us.”

As we got behind a dumpster, I reflected about the not-so-secret order of janitors. Maybe the tradition of passing down certain points of interest was unique to NIU, but something told me I should keep in mind that janitors and other maintenance workers knew more than people thought. If I ever needed to investigate or assault a place, I should probably speak with a custodian who worked there.

“Dear God,” Charlotte said, “this place is frigid!” Already, our faces had begun to turn red and puffy from the biting wind. Charlotte pulled her fashionable wool-lined leather trench coat closer to herself. She was the only one of us who hadn’t double-layered.

Bai, who was visibly shivering, said, “That is a downside, yes. Anyway, remember how we agreed to keep an eye on Mubashir Mubarak?”

“Yeah,” Eliza said, shooting Bai a side-long glance. “Did you confirm our theory ‘bout ‘im?”

“No,” Bai said, “but I decided to approach him as an intermediary between him and Nathan. I hope that is ok?” I nodded. “Good,” Bai said in acknowledgement. “Because he has something that he thought would interest you.”

“Is it about the IDRF?” I asked, suddenly curious. According to Alma Hebert, in 1985, the Nowhere Island University Interdimensional Research Facility had been boarded up and the people who had worked there had disappeared. She then had almost outright stated that the people who had vanished had something to do with The Dragon’s Teeth and their invasion with Korea. Apart from that, she had been annoyingly vague.

“Yes,” Bai said, somewhat surprised, “Mubashir found a file on it. But the file did not mention anything about The Dragon’s Teeth.”

“What did the file mention?” Charlotte asked. “It must have been something quite juicy for Mubashir to think it was worth our time.”

“Honestly,” Bai said, “both Mubashir and I think it is quite cryptic. We were not able to get a copy and I didn’t see it, and apparently much of it was heavily redacted. Yet it did reference some documents that might shed some light on the situation. But Mubashir was able to get the gist.”

“So?” Eliza asked. “Sounds like you’ve got a load of useless bollocks.”

“Or something you three are better able to guess than I am,” Bai said. “The document mentions two options: The Jason Project and United Fist. It didn’t say what they were…”

“Wait,” Charlotte asked, “did it say who was running United Fist? When was this document dated?”

Bai shrugged. “It didn’t say who proposed or ran United Fist, but the document did claim it was written in ‘97. Why?”

Charlotte now looked seriously worried. “Bai, Nathan, have either of you heard of a UNIX initiative called GNRF?”

Bai shook her head, but I said, “I think it stands for Global Nuclear Response Force? I heard about it when I was in second or third grade. UNIX was pushing America to join it, and my parents, despite being globalists, didn’t really want to join because of it. Does it really mean that UNIX could use the nukes of member nations?” I had remembered hearing that provision and thinking that couldn’t be real. I mean, how crazy would it be to give a foreign power only partially under your control access to your nukes?

“Yes,” Charlotte said. “It really does. Britain was the first nation to sign the accord. The idea is that if some device or natural anomaly gets too out of hand, UNIX can end it. The same year you yanks soundly rejected joining, Indian and Pakistani nukes ended a threat that I’m technically not supposed to know about. Today, Russia, China, the US, and North Korea are the only nations that haven’t agreed to the GNRF. The other five have to cover the entire globe themselves.” She paused. “If The President has some control over UNIX…”

She let the thought trail off. In my mind, visions of The President typing in a few characters onto his computer and locking out five countries from their own nuclear arsenals filled me with reasonable dread. I could tell that everyone else there was thinking it as well.

“Ah,” Bai said eventually. “I see. That could be… interesting.” The way she said made me think of the Chinese curse May you live in interesting times. “Do any of you know what The Jason Project is?”

Charlotte shook her head. “I haven’t the foggiest.”

“Actually,” I said, “in Greek mythology, wasn’t it Jason who raised an army…”

“…By burying the teeth of a dragon in the ground!” Charlotte said. “Nathan, if what you are suggesting is correct, then these Jason Project fellows are quite well read.”

“Mubashir managed to write down some notes after he saw the document,” Bai said. “He said the person writing the report’s main concern about The Jason Project was they had ‘command issues,’ and seemed worried about revolt. Their reason is that a test subject had hijacked whatever The Jason Project had been working on and caused a revolt.” She paused. “I think that if we want to know about The Lord of Death or this Goddess the Dragon’s Teeth worship, we should make an effort to find out about this first revolt.”

“I would also like to find out about Newton-Howell’s connection to UNIX,” Charlotte said. “My father’s organization works quite closely with them…”

“‘E doesn’t trust most of ‘em farther than ‘e can throw ‘em,” Eliza remarked. “I like the sound of a few of their people, but father makes the rest sound like the shiftiest lot you can find.”

“Well,” I said, “unless anyone has something to add, I think we can go back inside before we freeze to death.”

“There isn’t anything,” Bai said. “Let’s go.” Something told me that, despite choosing the location, she was just as anxious as I was to get out of there. It was probably her visible shivering that made me think that. “I’ll be heading off to my class.”

“If you see Mubashir,” I said, “tell him be careful. The President basically threatened me when I pushed him to investigate The Dragon’s Teeth at NIU.”

Bai may have said something, but in her hurry to get out, she didn’t fully turn to face me. Also, the wind in the alley picked up, drowning her voice completely. We waited for a few seconds after she disappeared, then we began walking back to the class.

“It was nice walking with you, Nathan,” Charlotte said, “but we really must be getting to… Nathan, what’s wrong?”

I had paused, halfway across the room to stare at the TVs. On them were pictures of tactical police and army units surrounding the capitol building in Washington, DC. Most of them were facing it. The banner for one agency proclaimed “Multiple shooters assault US Senate. More to follow.”

After a second of silence, Charlotte finally said, “Oh bloody hell.”

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Track 15: Shot Through the Heart

Apparently, Eliza and I weren’t the only ones to see that vision. According to an email I read, a lot of other people on the island had seen the same thing and the TV in Sun Tzu had a report about psionically sensitive people seeing strange visions all over the world. I was worried, but I realized that there was nothing about it I could do. Instead, I spent all my spare time trying to do rough sketches of the next weapons.

Finally, it was time to go to the study group/weapons test. Saturday morning, I actually had managed to sleep until seven. Considering when I usually got to bed and how little time I actually spent sleeping, it was unsurprising that I was usually tired. I considered going back to sleep, then considered the nightmares I was likely to get. After those lovely thoughts, I began the process of getting ready without disturbing John.

After I got in, I noticed that he had gotten dressed while I was doing the same, plus showering and brushing teeth. “Did I wake you up?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “not really. Besides, I can sleep through all sorts of crap.”

“Also,” I said, “sorry about the other night with Eliza. I…”

“Hey,” John said, “it was much better than what you walked into when Bai was here. Besides, she kind of lives on the floor above us.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” John said. “She rooms with Oro, but it’s functionally a single. Don’t ask where Oro goes, Bai never asks and I’d bet anything she wouldn’t tell if she knew.” He gestured at the door with his toothbrush. “Anyway…”

“Certainly,” I said.

Eventually he came back. For once, we actually talked a bit, mostly about classes. It was weird. Ever since we had gotten back to the island, we had stopped talking to each other. It was weird.

I thought back to what Eliza had said about Charlotte blaming herself for whatever happened in England over vacation. “John,” I asked, “do you blame me for what happened in Korea?”

“Which part?” he asked.

“Uh… the part where you got shot.”

“Ah.” John said nervously. “That part.”

There was a long, awkward pause. Finally, he said, “I don’t really blame anyone for what happened. I mean, I could blame you, but you never really forced me or even ordered me into that particular situation. I could blame the guy who actually shot me, but he was completely in the right to do so. I could blame myself, but honestly those things happen.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said.

“Is there a reason you asked?” John asked.

“It’s just…” I said, “…things have been weird between us since then, you know?”

“Yeah.” John said. There was another pause, then he blurted out, “It’s just… you’d do it again. Meanwhile, I’m convinced the next time I do something like this, I could die. I will die.”

“You don’t have to continue doing this,” I said. “You’re not on a tour of duty, and there’s plenty of other people who can do this.”

John cocked his head. “You really believe that?” he asked skeptically. “That we can sit back?” I hesitated. John sighed. “I thought so. Fuck me, right?”

Suddenly, our phones beeped. We both reached for them. It was Nari, sending out a mass text. Apparently, she was out in front of Sun Tzu. “You want to head out?” I asked John.

“Sure,” he said. “I kind of want to see how this gun you’ve been working on handles.”

“Actually,” I said as I unlocked my gun safe, “these ones are models that Nari’s improved.” I reached in and pulled out the prototype. “This is the one I made.” I held it for a moment, then put it in my pocket after making sure it was on safe. “Might be useful to give people an idea of how much its improved.”

“I call first dibs,” John said.

We walked down to Sun Tzu together, meeting Cross, Bai, Oro, and Eric’s crew on the way down. Ray-Gun, in particular was particularly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Cross, however, was quite grumpy.

“Listen, Ray,” he said as we got out of the elevator, “I know you like high-tech stuff, but I haven’t even had breakfast yet. Or my morning coffee. I need you to get the fuck outta my face with your tobacco and your chipperness for five seconds.”

“I’m sorry you are such a sad individual,” Ray-Gun said, waving his still-burning cigarette around expressively, “but I cannot control my excitement, and I have no wish to.”

“You are lucky,” MC Disaster said quietly. “At least they aren’t laser or plasma-based. Then he’d never shut up.”

The banter continued like this for the few seconds it took us to leave our dorm and see Nari, May, Sunny, and Andy waiting by the entrance to Sun Tzu. Sunny and Andy looked drained. May looked like her usual hyper self, albeit somewhat annoyed. Nari, meanwhile, looked like she had stolen the energy from the other three. She was also holding an ABS case and a cloth bag.

“Good,” Nari said upon seeing us, “you have made it.” She then turned around and beckoned imperiously. “Come on,” she said. “The range is only open for a limited time.”

Sunny, noticing that some of us (Cross) weren’t exactly thrilled to be ordered around by a ten-year-old, said, “Sorry. She’s a little…”

Eric interrupted by asking Nari, “So, my Queen,” he asked jovially, “what do you wish of your court today?” He had moved up besides Nari, and as he said this he made a parody of an obsequious bow.

“Don’t encourage her,” Sunny said, shooting Eric a venomous expression.

Nari, suddenly realizing what she had done, cringed slightly. “Sorry…” she said.

“Besides,” Andy said jokingly, “if anyone’s queen, it’d be May.”

Normally, May would either jokingly accept the title or cede it out of embarrassment, but today, she just made a noncommittal noise of recognition. Everyone else continued on as normal, but Andy and I noticed. I’m pretty sure that Nari noticed as well, but Eric was keeping her busy.

Eventually, Nari lead us into the room she had reserved. First, she opened the case to reveal six of the new pistols with two magazines each. These pistols were identified by stickers on the grip and barrel made by a label maker. As Andy had said, their aesthetic had been radically changed to a hybrid of the Berreta M-92’s long, double-cut slide and Desert Eagle’s triangular shape. The only bits of my original design that remained were the FNP-style sight mounts and the barrel that extended beyond the slide. Then she opened the bag to reveal that it had two plastic bags.

While she was doing that, I said, “Hey, Nari, John wanted to test out the first prototype, so I brought it along.”

“Did you bring magazines for it?” she asked. “I had to rework the magazines slightly. It wasn’t that big of a change.”

“Here you go,” I said, handing her the pistol and a spare mag.

She set the weapon on top of the newer versions. “Attention, please!” she called out. When she had everyone’s attention, she said, “In the case are prototypes of the Uilon Mangchi. Most of them are the second prototype, but one is the first. Do not get their magazines mixed up! Generation one has a different magazine than generation two, and I need to collect data on how they work.” When she saw that everyone had gotten this information, she continued, “In the white plastic bag, I have put tungsten-core rounds. In the other, I have bullets made out of a new compound taken from Grenzefrontier troops called seltsamemetall. Please make a note of which type of ammo you use and which gun you’re using on the sheets on the station, as well as any malfunctions. Mr. Jacobs, would you please instruct our guests in the operation of these weapons?”

Luckily, the controls on the first generation were the same as the ones on the second, which made things much quicker. The problem was that as soon as I had walked everyone through the process of loading, unloading and putting the Uilon Mangchi on safety, there was a knock on the door.

I opened it. There, smiling brightly, was Eliza. Behind her were Jennifer and Charlotte. “Sorry I’m late!” Eliza said. “What’d I miss?”

“Well…” I said, somewhat sheepishly, “kinda everything.”

Nari looked over my shoulder. “I know the mutant,” she said, “sorry… I mean Lupine. But I do not remember meeting the other two.”

“Charlotte is Eliza’s adopted sister,” I said. “Jennifer is… Jennifer.” Jennifer laughed in amusement at this. It was the kind of laugh that wasn’t supposed to remind you she was a supervillain, but did anyway. “They’re both in the Rogue program.”

I’m not sure why I mentioned that last bit, but I could feel Nari light up behind me. “Excellent!” she said. “I think we could use a law enforcement or enthusiast perspective on our weaponry.”

“I’m a little more than…” Jennifer began.

At the same time, May said, “I would prefer to avoid the civ…”

“Details, details,” Nari said. I turned around to see her literally wave off my concern. “Brief them on the details of operation and data gathering, Mr. Jacobs. After the first round, join us for the shareholders meeting.”

After running through everything again, I sat back and watched the first wave go. Everyone with the second generation prototype got the hang of it pretty quick. John, who was using the first generation, got the operation down pretty quick. After he finished his forty rounds (by which time all the other shooters had finished theirs,) he said, “If the fucking thing didn’t keep jamming or feel like I was firing a magnum, I’d say it was really good. It has some really nice penetration on it, which would have come in handy in Korea.” I nodded, remembering the abnormally strong armor of the Dragon’s Teeth. Hell, I had even had trouble penetrating the South Korean SWAT officer’s hard body armor with pistol rounds. 6.5mm seemed to solve that last problem pretty handily, though.

The Monk spoke up. “The newer version has greatly improved on the recoil, but I still do not like it. I also dislike the trigger. It seems a little heavy.” He paused to consider. “Then again, the recoil is comparable to your SIG, so I suppose someone might like it.” As he spoke, I noticed Nari was scribbling in a notebook.

MC Disaster spoke up again, making it a personal record for speaking in a day. “My thoughts are very similar. I quite like the power, I can tolerate the recoil, and I dislike the trigger pull. However, to determine if I would carry it into battle, I’d have to spend a lot more range time with it.” He considered the gun for a moment. Finally, he asked, “Does it really have to look this hideous?”

“Personally,” Jen said, “I quite adore the looks. Also the clip…”

“Magazine,” several people said at once, including Nari.

“Whatever,” Jen said, rolling her eyes. “I like it. I just want to empty it a bit faster. It would also be nice to do it one-handed. That means a slight recoil reduction and a decreased trigger pull.”

“Me too,” Cross said. “But don’t reduce the trigger pull too much, ok?”

“It isn’t a revolver or a bolt-action,” Oro said. “That’s probably why I don’t like it. It is very accurate for an automatic.”

After a few minutes of somewhat contradictory advice and several near-arguments from the first seven shooters, Nari finally said, “I think that’s enough for now.” She grabbed me by the arm. “Please, continue shooting. Meanwhile, the board will have a meeting.”

“Speaking of that,” Bai asked, “what is your company called?”

“Olympus,” May said. “Olympus Incorporated.”

When we got out, I said, “Pretty cool name. Did you come up with it, May?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m also thinking we should name the divisions differently. You and Nari get the weaponry division, Mars Arsenal. You’ll also have a split between thirty percent of the profits of Mars Arsenal. How does that sound?”

“Pretty good,” I said. “What’s your division called?”

“I’ve got Hephaestus Industrial Solutions,” Andy said. “May has Caduceus Medical. Speaking of Caduceus, wanna tell them the good news?”

“Sure,” May said. “Basically, the changes to the student invention policy means I can get a grant from The President. Plus, his contacts are railroading Power Sludge and my surgical glue through the FDA. If things go as planned, Andy and I might be leaving the school in a few weeks. We even a site picked out in Massachusetts.”

“You don’t sound very happy,” Nari said.

May sighed. “There’s an FBI contest. Apparently, .40 S&W isn’t cutting it for dealing with Parahumans and criminals armed with advanced tech.”

“And?” Nari asked. “Isn’t that not a good thing?”

May took a deep breath. “Weapons entered in this kind of competition tend to sell very well with civilians…”

“Which is what we want, correct?” Nari said. “These weapons are deliberately designed to defeat The Dragon’s Teeth. If they invade, we want as many people armed with these as possible.”

May exploded. “And what do you think people are going to be doing with them in the meantime?” Nari flinched, but May continued.  “Yeah, sure, we’ll get rich, selling weapons to people like Cross and Jennifer as well as the cops, then selling medical supplies when they’re done killing each other. But people will still be killing each other before The Dragon’s Teeth show up. I don’t want to be responsible for that!”

Suddenly, May stopped, realizing that Nari was starting to tear up. “I’m sorry,” May said hurriedly, “I didn’t mean…”

“The Dragon’s Teeth,” Nari said, straining to speak through her tears, “are massacring everyone in my country. I don’t want to be responsible for them to do the same to another country. Whatever Cross and Jennifer and people like them are capable of is a rounding error compared to what I’ve seen from those monsters.” She then began to walk off. “I’m going to the bathroom. I’ll be back.”

“Well,” May said after Nari was out of sight, “not only am I a hypocrite, I guess I’m also a complete bitch.” She began to walk away. “I’m going back to my dorm. When Nari comes back, tell her I’m sorry.”

 

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