Track 7: They Have Marched 1,000 Miles

The plane was much like a previous version of the Blackmoor-Ward plane that I had been in. The interior furniture was mostly made out of a light yellow-brown wood veneer and warmly lit. The difference was all the SAS in desert camo filing in. I couldn’t hear a Goddamn thing, but could guess that there was a lot of shooting and yelling.

I got off of Eliza’s back and helped her up. She smiled tiredly and said something, and I responded by saying “Sorry, I’m deaf at the moment.” She laughed and said something else that I couldn’t make out. “If you want me to let you go,” I said, dragging her over to a couch, “just elbow me in the stomach or something.”

I could feel Eliza shake with what I’m pretty sure was laughter as I moved her to a couch. Sitting there, looking somewhat embarrassed, was the blond, aristocratic Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward. She said something as I set Eliza down, and I said, “Hey, I’m deaf, remember.”

I sat down heavily and began buckling myself in. I was pretty sure I’d need it soon. As I did so, I saw a man with short black hair and a fancy trench coat by the door helping SAS operators close hatch. He then sat down in a nearby seat. After the SAS operators got back into their seats, he said something into his headset. Then the plane rocketed straight off the ground so fast I felt my spine compress. It was extremely weird having it be in complete silence, except for the ringing in my ears.

I then fell asleep. I mean, it was probably around two in the morning and I’d been drugged by someone. You’d go to sleep as soon as you found a relatively safe place as well.

During the time I was sleeping, my hearing came back. Not fully, but enough for me to hear things as if I was underwater. It came back slowly, so I didn’t wake up. That was good, I really enjoyed that.

What finally woke me up was a rather high-class British voice saying “Good God, is he dead?”

It sounded like it was coming from far away, so I assumed he was talking about someone else. “Wha…?” I said, coming to my senses. “Who’s dead? Is everyone ok?”

When I opened my eyes, I saw that the man in the trench coat was staring at me, and some SAS operators moving about were giving me nervous looks as well. When I started talking, he seemed relieved. “Oh lovely,” he said, “I was quite worried there for a few minutes.” He then moved over to the opposite couch and sat down heavily.

“Sorry,” I said. “Just trying to-” I noticed he was flinching whenever I talked so I lowered my voice to the point where I was having trouble hearing myself. “Just trying to get some shut-eye. Big thanks to your daughter for getting me out. You are Lord Blackmoor-Ward, right?”

“Yes,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said, “I am.” I noticed he had smiled approvingly when I had called Eliza his daughter. “And I understand you are one of the poorly used mercenaries my daughter hired on her most recent adventure?”

“I wouldn’t say hired,” I said carefully, “and I do like the humanitarian spirit behind what she was trying to do.”

“Oh come off it,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said angrily. “We both know that even if Miss Nakashima was the sweetest girl in the world, Charlotte did not have enough intelligence to be sending you on that mission. She had no idea the size of the enemy force, or their equipment, or how far they’d go to kill Miss Nakashima.”

“I take it,” I said, remembering the SAS operator who’d dived for my stretcher as I’d been driven off by the Defenders of Fuji and been shot in the head for his troubles, “I take it there were heavy casualties getting me back.”

“Yes,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said. “You may have seen a few when they initially tried to pick you up and a few more at your successful rescue. You did not,” here his voice got dangerously low, “get to see what the Defenders did to her close-protection unit. Four dead, all because she couldn’t cover up her rescuing that girl.” There was a pause. “At least you’ve been very accommodating about the whole thing.”

“About that…” I said. “I may have told-”

“Agent Hicks,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said. “I know. Eliza told me all about him. Honestly, I’m lucky you haven’t done worse. With all that’s going on, your friend needs someone between him and Miss Nakashima but…”

A haunted expression crossed over his eyes. “Did things get worse?” I asked, knowing full well the answer would be yes.

“Yes,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said. “Dragon’s Teeth don’t have a navy, so they’re stealing the ships of others. In fact, the ship we refueled on is probably overrun by now. And to top it off, we’re getting reports of those bloody clones mucking about near our missile silos in Scotland. Do you mind terribly if we drop you off in Hawaii before heading to Austrailia?”

“Honestly not a problem,” I said. “But I do have some questions about NIU. Or Krieger did, and I’m honestly a little worried. Like, a guy who’s been there since the nineties according to some people still has questions? And he thinks a complete outsider has the answers?”

“Well,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said. “Some of that has to do with my reputation. You know about my primary duties serving the Queen and monitoring the Final Prophecy, but I also have a…”

“Cover story?” I suggested.

“Somewhat,” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said, “but a cover story implies what everyone thinks I do is false. Those who know of me, but not of the prophecy, believe I am an expert in the occult.” He paused. “Which I am. I can’t really tell you much more, as you don’t need to know, and Charlotte would be very cross if I let you into this world before I let her in. What I can tell you is that Nowhere Island has some rather interesting magical properties, some of which make it rather difficult for outsiders to discover. Others are rather more… shall we say, robust. It is quite the relief to all in my community that the former President has been ousted before he could master even its most benign abilities.”

“So,” I said, “not only did Howell get in on infiltrating UNIX when it was brand new, not only did he create the Dragon’s Teeth, but he’s also fucking around with literal magic?”

“He what?” Lord Blackmoor-Ward said. Then added, “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. The amount of talent he has there is incredible, but I can scarcely believe he was able to put something like that together.”

“He’s been actively suppressing technologic advances,” I said. “He’s basically keeping everything for himself. Crushing progress, hopes, dreams… he says it’s just to stop aliens, but I’m pretty sure any alien invasion is going to end up with him in charge.”

Lord Blackmoor-Ward leaned back on the couch, considering my words. “He had better remain deposed,” he said after absorbing what I’d said. “The more I learn this man, the more I believe we were lucky to bring him to heel this time. It’s quite doubtful we’ll be able to do it again.”

“Completely agree,” I said. As I thought about this, I suddenly became very concerned by the fact that the President was still alive.

 

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Track 17: Pachinko Violence

I heard the explosion outside when I cautiously begun to open the door. Whatever it had caused it, it sounded like it had came from the lobby. I decided that speed was now of the essence so I sprinted the short distance from the stairs to the rear exit. During that time, I heard the muffled sounds of gunfire coming from the lobby. By the time I had completed the five-second sprint to the door, it had ceased. It had sounded like both sides had contributed to around ten rounds fired.

Shit, I thought as I opened the door. Whoever these people are, they aren’t playing. I walked out into the late afternoon and began to head left. My plan was to double around and hope I could find John, so I made a left turn. Immediately, I saw that several people were fighting against the tide of people running away from the building. I made eye contact with one. He was wearing one of those single-ear earbuds that you see the Secret Service wearing. He immediately saw me and put his hand to his ear and started yelling.

“Fuck me,” I said, and began to run into traffic. A car skidded around me. “Sorry!” I yelled to the driver. When I turned around, I saw that someone holding a micro Uzi or MAC-11 had just come out of the Consulate’s rear exit. Thankfully, another car passed right between us.

Deciding that staying outside where there were clear lines of fire was a bad idea, I decided to run into the building with tacky neon lights directly in front of me. I crashed through the tinted double doors. Inside was a small lobby and a fat man in a suit that even I was able to identify as cheap. He stood up from his stool and began to say something, but I just ran past him and through the door he was guarding.

When I was in, I suddenly realized why the exterior was so tacky. This was a pachinko parlor. It was a pachinko parlor with the kind of clientele that wasn’t bothered by stuff like gunfire from across the street. I then began to head deeper into the pachinko parlor, making sure to zigzag a bit. I also moved casually so as not to disturb the people there.

Suddenly, I heard the door burst open and running feet. Eventually, the footsteps started getting closer. The rows were vertical with gaps and the feet were parallel to me so I froze in one of the gaps, pretending to inspect the machine and hoping the feet would pass. Most did, but one decided to run blindly down the hall I was hiding in.

When he got close, I reached out and jabbed my fingers into his windpipe. Like the rest of his friends, he was wearing business casual. He let out a startled choke and dropped just as a nearby unoccupied pachinko machines said “Phwoar!” There was an electronic trill, then I smashed the man’s head into one of the screens just as the machine said “Hit the lever!”

The gambler on the machine looked up just as I had finished collecting the downed man’s revolver. The gambler looked at the twitching hitman, then at me, then at my new revolver. Then he bowed and said something in Japanese, of which I only caught “sumimasen,” (which translates roughly as “pardon me” or “excuse me,”) then he nervously began to pretend to continue playing his machine. I flashed him a thumbs up, then scanned my surroundings.

That was the right move because had I not looked behind me, I would not have seen the guy behind me lean out with his Glock. It must have been a G-18 or some kind of conversion conversion, because the burst that followed me was definitely full auto. The sparking machines being hit made me feel like I was in some kind of John Woo movie.

Zig-zagging back roughly the way I came, I hoped my enemies hadn’t decided to leave guards by the entrance. The burst of micro Uzi fire dashed those hopes. I managed to backpedal, but some of the pachinko machines and one of the patrons weren’t so lucky. As his machine sparked, he lay on the ground, clutching his arm and screaming. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen.

Luckily, he wasn’t the only one screaming now. The parlor’s patrons had finally recognized that there was something hinky going on. I began hearing people screaming and yelling in other parts of the pachinko parlor. There were also a few gunshots. Underneath it, I heard the man guarding the door yelling at someone.

Hoping to God it was an opportunity and not him yelling at me, I leaned out from behind the row of pachinko machines and shot him in the face. Luckily, I had been right and he had been motioning for someone to get down. His finger hadn’t even been on the trigger.

Realizing I hadn’t much time and that the micro Uzi was too big to conceal, I didn’t bend to pick it up. I did glance down at the corpse and nudged it with my foot just to see if he was wearing body armor. Yes, he was. Good. Now I knew not to shoot them in the chest. My goal wasn’t to kill these guys, it was to get out safely. The more engagements and the longer they lasted, the worse off I would be.

On that note, I checked the chamber of my revolver as I entered the foyer. It apparently only held a maximum of five .38 special rounds, and I had already used one. In other words, I couldn’t afford to miss, or have a shot hit a plate. It was at that moment I decided I hated revolvers.

Hiding the revolver in my pants (yes, I know that’s a bad idea, but my only other choices were leaving it out or dropping it,) I then exited the street. Choosing a direction at random, I turned left. After a few blocks, I began wondering where the hell the cops were. After a few more blocks, I began to wonder why there was a white van following me.

When it started getting closer, I decided that turning into what appeared to be a tunnel of commercialism. Seriously, it was a building with an arch through it, and on the inside of the arch were a bunch of stores. I decided that my best bet would to be to find a clothing store that sold coats and sunglasses, buy them, put them on, then walk out the way I had come in. Or, considering I had nowhere near enough money, find something like a ruler I could use to jimmy a lock on a car. Or find another exit. Pretty much anything except what actually ended up happening.

A few moments, I saw the clothing store. I also found something standing right outside it. Something I thought I would never see. A line of payphones.

Not even hesitating, I ran to the payphones and began feeding it money. This was my one chance to talk to Charlotte. While the phone rang, I muttered, “Come on, Charlotte, pick the fuck up!” I also nervously scanned the crowd, hoping to God that I wouldn’t be shot in the back.

“Who is this?” A cultured British voice asked. It was Charlotte. Good.

“It’s me,” I said. “The guy who your Military Attaché just tried to drug.”

“Oh, God,” Charlotte said. “You saw Windbrooke, didn’t you? Why couldn’t you have gone one further a…” There was a pause, as I heard Eliza talking to Charlotte. “Oh bloody hell. Actually, never mind, you made the right choice. Why aren’t you calling on your cPhone?”

“They aren’t secure,” I said.

“What?” Charlotte asked incredulously. “They were designed by a Turing student. They’re unbreakable!”

“Ah!” a voice cut in from a different source. “That explains why it took me two hours to crack it. NSA encryption usually only takes me an hour and thirty minutes at most.”

“Who’s this?” Charlotte asked.

“That,” I said, recognizing Hiro Nakashima’s voice, “is the man who’s forced me to ditch all my electronic devices. Tell me, Hiro, how’d you get the cops to avoid us?”

“A magician never reveals his secrets,” Hiro said, “and you, Mr. Jacobs, have more important questions to ask me. For instance, how far away is the cleaner team?”

“I saw them following me,” I said. “If they remain true to form, I’d be surprised if it took more than fifteen seconds. If they’re better than I expect…” I scanned the crowd, “Well, then they’re probably already here.”

“What is your proposal?” Charlotte said. “Assuming you aren’t just trying to buy time.”

“It is a fairly simple one,” Hiro said. “Give us my ancestor, and everything resets. We will forget about the abuse of our hospitality, the murder of our men, and the damage to our political capitol.”

“That honestly sounds too good to be true,” I said. “What guarantee do I have that I can just walk out of here?”

“Nathan!” Charlotte said, shocked.

“Simple,” Hiro said, “we do not think that anyone like that should see the Architect. How long have you observed her, Mr. Jacobs? Three days? Four? It only took our psychologists a few hours to determine that she is mentally unstable. She is manipulative, violent, and obsessive. Does that sound like the kind of person you want to expose the Architect to?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Charlotte said. “We don’t give up the people under our protection.”

“Very high-minded of you,” Hiro said, “but not practical in the real world.”

“No,” Charlotte said, “discarding people like rags makes them wonder who’s next.” She paused. “Doesn’t this situation make you wonder, Mr. Nakashima? I mean, the Defenders spend a damn near unobtainable stone on your great-great-great-great whatever and lord knows how many millions of yen to keep her training current and within hours of getting her back decide to just… toss her away like so much garbage. All they spent on you was just a fancy four-year degree.”

The line went silent for a long time. “Hiro?” Charlotte asked innocently. “Are you still there? Or did I hit a nerve?”

“This offer,” Hiro said, his voice shaking, “can be redeemed by anyone. If either of you is truly loyal to the other, I would suggest taking it up.” He then hung up.

“I’m going to have to tell Jen about the offer,” I said, “but I don’t think she’ll go for it. These guys killed her brother over a five hundred year old feud. She’s about as likely to believe that promise as she is to root for the Yankees.”

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Charlotte said, “and I’m not sure Jen is as honorable as you’re saying.”

“I’m not saying she’s honorable,” I said, trying not to feel sorry for a murderous gangster who could pass for a sociopath. “I’m saying her interests don’t align with theirs.”

“Do they align with mine?” Charlotte asked.

“I’m going to be honest,” I said, “apart from Mayu, you are rapidly becoming the only person who cares about keeping Mayu alive.” I sighed. “Keep an eye open for us. We’ll come to you.” She started to say something, but I cut her off. “Not over the phone, or near any other microphone connected to the net. People are listening.” I then hung up before she could fuck up any more than she already had.

 

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Track 9: We Have Words

We didn’t speak until we had left the keep, with me leading the group out of the castle and into the woods. Well, everyone except for Charlotte. For the entire time we walked, she was making comments on my rudeness. Finally, I turned around and said, “Do you realize how badly you fucked up?”

“Excuse me?” Charlotte said.

“You walked into a room with someone who’s clearly nuts,” I began, “with powerful people probably listening to every word you say, and told them a hell of a lot more than you should.”

“But…” Charlotte protested.

I cut her off. “Did I make a few mistakes? Yes.” I dropped my voice to a whisper in the vain hope that if someone were to eavesdrop on this conversation and the one we had with Mayu they’d miss crucial information. “That little picture of hers took me off guard…” then I resumed in a normal (ok, louder than normal) voice, “but what the hell were you thinking telling everyone you knew The Architect’s identity? And even worse, what do you think Bai would do if she heard that you…”

“That was a lie!” Charlotte said. “Do you seriously think me so low as to lie to a friend?”

“The question isn’t whether I believe you,” I said. “The question is whether they could make Bai believe it. Or anyone else believe it.” I paused, remembering how she hadn’t exactly convinced me when she had made the promise. “You have left it alone, right?”

“Well…” Charlotte said, “Mayu said it best. It would be irresponsible to just leave…” I tensed. If she said Mubashir’s name, there was a very good chance I’d kill her. “…our friend in the hands of people who had no idea what to do with him. I didn’t find him, I just laid a bit of groundwork.”

“Bloody ‘ell,” Eliza said. “You realize everybody’s going to be pissed with you now?”

“Only if they know the truth,” Charlotte said. “And even then, they would have to be rather unreasonable, wouldn’t they?”

“Ok,” John said, taking a deep breath, “what happens if Li finds out Bai told you who The Architect is? Do you think Li is reasonable?” He shook his head. “Not only that, but I don’t think Mayu’s even sane. There’s something seriously wrong with her.”

“Um.” We all turned to look at Charlotte. “The thing about Mayu… we think people in her own organization are planning on killing her. We… don’t want that.”

“Any particular reason?” I asked. Seeing that everyone looked at me with horror, I said, “Look, I know that all life is sacred and stuff. She’s also gotten a raw deal.”

“Fuckin’ A she ‘as,” Eliza murmured darkly.

I continued, “But to get her out, we’d need to kill a lot of people. Then what? What happens when she finds out we don’t want her anywhere near Mubashir?”

Charlotte cleared her throat, then said, “Actually, we may need her.” I raised an eyebrow. “You see, while we don’t need The Architect yet, we need someone who can put a stop to the Dragon’s Teeth and their Goddess… whether or not it they are related to prophecies, final or otherwise.”

“Ok,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean we need her. The Architect is in very good hands.”

“As far as we know,” Charlotte said. “That being said, any number of things could have gone wrong. His former caretakers may want him back, his new caretakers may find him unsatisfactory, he may leave in a fit of pique…”

“This is assuming that you have no resources,” I said. “But you do. You don’t need to take in Mayu.”

“What about control?” Charlotte asked. “If we need Mubashir, how do we control him?” I was about to say something, but Charlotte cut me off. “Oh, don’t tell me how we don’t need to control him. He bloody well admitted to not being able to control himself when his powers were activated. You even saw what happened when his powers manifest on two separate occasions.” It was more like three, but I didn’t feel that was important. Plus, I had only seen the aftereffects of the second time. “If he is provoked again… Well, from your own admission, his episodes seem to be getting bigger.”

I considered this. The first time I had experienced his powers, nothing dramatic had really changed. Yes, I had been felt up by millions of hands in a way that had traumatized me for life, and yes, a brick wall had been subtly altered, and yes, time and space had been bent to hell, but nothing really bad had happened. The next time I had actually witnessed his power in action, I had watched as three people had been turned into gym equipment. Also, thinking about it, I was now unsure if the bunker Mubashir had found had been there before. If it had been there before, I seriously wish Eric and his team had found it during the Hell Semester final.

I also considered something else. “If I’m going to help you,” I finally said to Charlotte, “I need to know, when Mayu told you that The Architect was a chance to make the world perfect…” I paused, because what I was saying sounded insane to me. “…how much did you believe that?”

“I think she’s exaggerating a bit, honestly,” Charlotte said.

“A bit?” John asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, a little more than a bit,” Charlotte admitted, “but I think she sincerely believes that The Architect could be a greater force for good than anything else. Between cultural differences and desperation to be part of something bigger than herself, one could be forgiven for thinking she lied.” The problem with that statement was that I didn’t believe Mayu thought she was lying or exaggerating.

“That isn’t what I was asking,” I said. “What I’m asking is how far are you planning on going with that line of thought.”

“Only as far as our friend wants to go,” Charlotte said. “I promise.”

“I will hold you to that promise,” I said. I wasn’t sure how, Mayu was right about how Charlotte was so powerful. After all, she had brought with her a significant chunk of the UK’s special forces. But this… I’d need to take a stand on this.

“Oi!” Eliza said. “You don’t get to threaten my sister!”

I took a deep breath, but John said, “Yeah, well, she doesn’t get to lie to people and then ask them to trust her. Oh wait! She’s been doing that for almost a year!” He stared directly at Charlotte. “If Bai asks if we kept our promise, I’m either going to have to lie to her or betray you, you understand that, right?”

“I do hope you’ll do the right thing,” Charlotte said.

“You don’t get it,” John said. “There is no right thing! I’m probably going to just flip a coin.” Even for me, someone who was extremely annoyed at Charlotte, this wasn’t good news. I wanted to know exactly what he’d do.

“Konbanwa!!” a bubbly voice behind us said. Charlotte, John and I turned around.

Eliza, who had been facing from the direction the voice was coming from, said, “Bloody fuckin’ ‘ell.” I also heard her flick off the safety of her CZ.

I didn’t have to turn around to know who it was. “Mayu,” I said, “we were just talking about you.”

“Oh good!” She said, her smile growing to the eye-closing one I had seen before. “I hope you have found my proposal acceptable.” As we talked, I heard Charlotte call some of her bodyguards, giving them directions to bring a car. I also noticed that Mayu was bleeding from the eyes and nose.

“I’m actually a bit curious about how you managed to get out, actually,” I said.

“Yeah,” John said. “You were in the basement, and I’m pretty sure the entire building is jump-shielded.”

“I read about that while I was away…” Mayu said, putting a finger to her lip and staring off speculatively. “They work by flooding the area with particles to stop us from jumping… I wonder, did their machine create a less dense concentration? Maybe that’s why it felt like I was slipping through a crack? And why this jump was so costly…” Again, I noticed the blood running down her face like wet makeup. She smiled again, one of her big ones, and held up a small scrap of paper. “Or maybe I was just lucky! Just like how Charlotte warned me that the Defenders wanted to kill me!”

“I didn’t think she’d come now!” Charlotte said frantically. “I thought that the note would tell her I was working on convincing them not to, and I’d tell her if…”

“If you’d waited,” Mayu said in her innocent, girlish voice, “the faction that wanted to kill me would have done so, and no one would have been able to prove anything.” She gave one of her big smiles. “I could go back if that’s more convenient for you.”

“No…” Charlotte said. “It would be impossible to get you out then.” She turned to John and me. “You two… get her to Jen. She’ll know where to hide her.”

“And then?” I asked.

“We’ll contact you,” Charlotte said.

“And if you can’t?” I asked. “What do we do then?”

“Please…” Eliza said, looking uncomfortable, “can we just go with the plan? This is… we’re wastin’ time. I’m surprised that the alarm ‘asn’t sounded yet.”

Mayu nodded eagerly. “Yes. They should have sounded it by now.” She then looked at John and me. “Even if I wanted nothing to do with the plan, I would want to be far away from what is about to happen here.”

Check and mate, Nate, I thought to myself. Mayu had finally found my button, at least in this instance. I didn’t like her. She was too manipulative for my liking, and Charlotte seemed to have a profound weakness for her. I also didn’t like the fact that she could get to me.

“Fine,” I said. “You win.” For now. “I’ll take the car, and then John and I can stash her with Jen… If that’s ok with you, John?”

I was inherently when John glared suspiciously at Mayu and said, “Sure. I’ll come.” I nodded gratefully at him. I really didn’t want to be alone with a manipulative assassin who wasn’t quite stable. Especially seeing as how our interests didn’t align even in the slightest.

We were interrupted by Charlotte’s Maybach pulling up on the road nearby. One of her bodyguards got out. “Well,” Charlotte said, “as Miss Nakashima suggested, you three should probably get a move on. Again, we will contact you.”

We got into the car. Mayu, I noticed, got in the back. That defeated my half-fantasized, half-realized plan of wrapping my arm around from behind her and squeezing. You could be wrong, I reminded myself. She might not be evil. Still, I decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check the rearview mirror every few seconds to see if she was trying something and lock the doors and windows just to be safe.

“Hey Jen…” I said as we started the car, “if you can hear us, please help. We’re kind of in deep shit.” We waited. “I got my cPhone, John has his, you gotta have one of our numbers…” Nothing happened.

“Who is Jen?” Mayu asked. I looked in the rearview mirror, partly to see her reaction, partly because I was due. John, to my satisfaction, was checking Mayu as well. Mayu, for her part, still had her typical smile.

“A person,” I said noncommittally.

“Are you seriously going to be that kind of asshole?” John asked.

I sighed. “Jen is… basically the only other person in this country we know. I’ve avoided her because even knowing her makes things… complicated.” Well, hopefully that wouldn’t be the case now. I mean, if she hadn’t ever gone to Japan before, the local law enforcement wouldn’t be watching her… right?

Then my phone beeped. Not wanting to crash, I pulled the Maybach over to the side of the road and pulled my phone out. It was a text from an unfamiliar number. I sighed. It could be Jen, so I took a look. After I stared at it for a moment, John said, “Judging by the look on your face, I’m guessing it isn’t good news.” I nodded. John sighed. “Fuck me, right?”

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Track 8: A Modest Proposal

We got back to the castle very late at night. The day had been very interesting, as well as somewhat nerve-wracking.  After all, not only had we been sharing a car with a Jumper, but a Fire Elemental (Jen told us when we asked) and whatever Lydia was (Jen said she was an inventor, but didn’t mention her specialty,) plus Jen’s other two minions following us in the Escalade. Of Jennifer’s two minions in the car with us, I had no idea which was scarier. I guessed the one papers back home called Hoka (which meant arson in Japanese,) so I had a pretty good idea of how to deal her if she turned on us, but Lydia changed the dynamic. At least we were sitting in their blind spot while they were in our car.

When Jennifer had finally let us go, she and her two female bodyguards got back in her Escalade and drove off. We didn’t mention her in anything except mildly approving terms until we had arrived back at Kage keep and were several hundred meters away from the car.

“Well, that was… nerve-wracking,” I said.

“Bloody ‘ell, that’s an understatement,” Eliza growled darkly. “I definitely don’t like that Elemental. Smells too much like petrol for my taste.”

“Well,” I said, “she’s a Fire Elemental, so…”

“I’ve been around those kinda Elementals before,” Eliza said. “the only other one ‘oo ‘ad that smell was a fuckin’ firebug. Fucker liked to burn people a little too much for the coppers’ tastes.”

“Well… that’s bad, but expected,” I said. “But what the hell are we going to do about the car?”

“We’re gonna ‘ave to rip it to shreds, aren’t we?” Eliza said grimly.

“What car is this?” We looked up to see Charlotte and a couple of Royal Marine officers.

“You know that party we went to in Boston?” Eliza said. “It got infested when we parked it there.”

“Oh, bloody hell,” Charlotte said. She then turned to the officers. “Excuse us, gentlemen. My sister, Mr. Jacobs and I need to talk.” They nodded and walked off. Charlotte turned back towards us. “Now, if you two would come with me…”

She led us to a conference room. To my surprise, John was also in there. Charlotte motioned us to sit down. When we were all seated and the door was closed, Charlotte asked, “So, before we get into the real business, why do you think my car is bugged, and why do we need to take it apart?”

As Eliza and I recounted our encounter with Jen, I noticed Charlotte was a lot more thoughtful than I would be if someone had told me my $200,000+ car needed to be ripped down to its bolts. Finally, she said, “You know, there may be ways to make this useful.”

“Uh, how?” John asked.

“Never mind that for now,” Charlotte said. “In the meantime, I’d like to have a nice talk with Miss Nakashima.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Oh, no reason,” Charlotte said. “I just think she’s quite fascinating. And I do feel quite bad for her, what with her being trapped in some horrid alternate reality.” She checked her watch, then stood up. “I do believe our appointment is soon. If you would please follow me…”

We followed her out the door and down into the bowels of the castle. Eventually, we came to what obviously used to have been dungeons. Now, they seemed to have been refurbished into rooms for guests. Groups of three cells seemed to have been consolidated into one room. Judging by the heavy iron doors and the fact that two guards with pistols had been stationed by Mayu’s door, the guests may not have been as willing as someone staying in an equivalent room at a hotel.

The guards let us in, revealing that two of the three cells used to make the room had been turned into a good imitation of a hotel room with a desk, tatami mat, dresser and TV. The door to what had been the third cell was open and I could see it was a bathroom. The tasteful wood paneling was so soothing that at first I truly believed that this was a room designed with comfort first in mind. They had even put in a fake window opposite the door that mimicked sun rising and setting.

Then I saw the door close behind me. It didn’t look even half as intimidating as it had from the front. Hell, until you noticed that there wasn’t a door handle, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a normal door when it was closed and you were standing in the room. But that one missing feature changed everything. This room was definitely still a prison.

Mayu, though, seemed not to notice that. She was kneeling down at the low desk, a calligraphy brush in her hand, completely focused on what she was doing. I noticed that she was dressed in a much more Western style, with two tank tops (a white cotton one on top of a pink one) and a pleated blue skirt. “Please excuse me,” she said distractedly. “I’m just putting the finishing touches on this…”

“Certainly,” Charlotte said. “Please tell us when you’re done.”

We waited for a minute, watching Mayu work. Her long white hair made it hard to read her expression, but her body language was so focused that it looked like obsession. Finally, she put the brush on a tray beside the paper. Then, she stood up and bowed, smiling so wide her eyes closed. “Hello,” she said. “I apologize for my rudeness, but I was busy working on something and had almost finished.” She straightened up and her smile returned to its usual position, revealing her so-blue-they-were-almost-white eyes. “I hope you may forgive me and that the rest of your visit may be more pleasant.”

“As I said before, quite alright, dear,” Charlotte said.

“Hey,” John said, “do you mind showing us what you were working on?”

“Sure!” Mayu said. She carefully (in retrospect, reverently,) picked up the paper, removing the weights. She held it out in front of her with pride. “Do you like it?”

My breath almost caught in my throat. On the paper was a perfect drawing of Mubashir Mubarak, the man we now knew to be The Architect. His blocky head was not the most distinctive or handsome thing in the world, and the black ink couldn’t capture his brown skin, but it was definitely a three-quarters headshot of him. As casually as I could, I said, “That’s very good, Mayu. Where did you get the inspiration for him?”

Mayu stood there for a moment, her usual smile fixed on her face. Now, however, it seemed like it was masking a loading screen. Finally she said, “…I must have seen a similar face in a history book. Maybe American?” She then pointedly asked, “Why? Does he look familiar to you?” In that moment, I knew that she had seen each and every one of us recognize Moob. I also knew, short of getting her to confirm it, I could never prove it.

I’m not sure if John had come to the same conclusion as I had (namely to not mention Mubashir to Mayu) but he asked, “So, I see you decided to change clothes.”

Mayu smiled. “Oh, of course! I’m not sure if Nathan noticed the smell last night, but I hadn’t changed out of that kimono in hundreds of years.” Now that she mentioned it, I did recall a rather foul smell last night. “Besides, I want to get comfortable in these kinds of clothes.” She giggled. “After all, I’d look pretty silly going out in public in a kimono!”

“Of course!” Charlotte said. “But I am sure you could pull it off.”

Mayu smiled and bowed. “Very kind of you, Blackmoor-Ward-ojou, but I don’t want to pull it off. It… it would feel like stasis.” She pulled out of the bow, and I could briefly see a haunted look in her eyes. It was instantly gone and replaced with her usual grin. “Anyway, is there something your Ladyship would ask of me?”

“As a matter of fact,” Charlotte said, “I was wondering if you knew anything about The Architect.” John, Eliza, and I looked at Charlotte. This wasn’t the deal we had made with Bai. “The Defenders of Fuji have lost much information over the years. At one point, they knew more about The Architect than any other group in the world. They knew how to find…” there was a barely perceptible pause, “…it, how to control it, how to destroy it, things of that nature.”

Mayu giggled. “Well…” she said, “they last one is easiest to answer. You can’t.”

“But you can?” Eliza said suspiciously.

Mayu giggled again. “Don’t be silly! Your organization has the ear of a Queen of a great military power and an organization that can access the nuclear armaments of multiple nations. And if you are an example of your sister’s servants, I can tell just by looking at you there are only two situations in which I would be superior.”

I shot a look at Charlotte. I hoped it said, “She’s useless and we shouldn’t be talking to her.” I could see Eliza and John giving her similar looks.

Charlotte ignored these looks. Mayu, I’m pretty sure, saw them. “First of all,” Charlotte said, “Eliza is not a servant. She is my sister, if not in blood, then in spirit.”

“Oh!” Mayu said, bowing. “Please forgive me! I did not mean offense!”

“Sure…” Eliza said. With anyone else, she would have either made a joke or remarked how she was pretty much Charlotte’s de facto bodyguard to put them at ease. With Mayu, she just regarded her with suspicion.

“Second,” Charlotte said, “what are these two things you can do better than Eliza?”

“Well,” Mayu said, focusing solely on Charlotte, “the first thing I can do better than her, than anyone, is to find The Architect. I’m the only one on the entire planet who can find him because I’m the only one who knows what to look for.”

John chimed in. “How do you know it’s a him? Couldn’t The Architect be an it or a her?”

Mayu just smiled at him. “Didn’t I tell you I’m the only one who can find him?”

“We don’t need to find him just at the moment,” Charlotte said. “But…”

Mayu cut in. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Could you take out your phone or send an email and instantly know for certain where The Architect is?” Charlotte froze. I’m sure the rest of us did as well, and I’m convinced Mayu noticed it as well. Mayu giggled, covering her hand with her mouth. “Silly me! Of course you can. No responsible person would let someone that powerful fall into the wrong hands. Don’t worry, you don’t need to prove that to me.”

“Yes, quite,” Charlotte lied. “Of course.”

“The next question,” Mayu said, cocking her head, “is what are you planning on doing with him?”

“What we’re going to do,” I said, cutting in before Charlotte could say anything else, “is not any of your business. I’m sorry, but if we’re going to keep The Architect safe, we need as few people as possible to know about the situation as possible.”

“So you’re going to keep him locked away?” she asked. She sounded innocent as usual, but I could hear something else underneath. Something desperate. “You realize this is a god we are talking about. This is not some lost child or broken man. This is a chance to make the world perfect.” She paused, seeing that John and Eliza were looking at her with suspicion. As if she had planned it, she added, “He’s also the only one who can stop the Lady of Death and the Angels. You need him.” Not included in that speech, but heavily implied was, You need me, too.

I had gone very quiet and bland. That was because I had remembered what Mubashir had said to me the night his powers had been revealed: “At first, I thought Allah was just punishing me for my suicide. Now, I’m starting to wonder if he’s punishing me for telling Him I could do a better job.” He didn’t want to play God, and after Al-Qaeda, he probably had had enough of being someone’s weapon. Whatever Mayu had planned for him definitely involved both.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said, “you have an interesting proposal, but it’s the kind of thing we need to discuss in private.” I walked over and knocked on the door.

“Nathan,” Charlotte said reprovingly, “Don’t be rude. Surely she has more to say to us.”

“I’m sorry, Charlotte,” I said, “But she’s said enough.” I stared at her pointedly. “We’ve all said enough.”

 

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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 1: Factory

July was a busy month. Of course, all months for me had been busy, especially the ones spent at NIU. Whether I had been talking to captured Grenzefrontier (a few of which had been surprisingly cooperative, even after I revealed myself to be Jewish,) trying to make a new weapon to justify my position in my own company, see Eliza more often, and also maintain my grades. It was tough, but it was completely worth it.

Then, when I got back, I had to help out with the company. First, I had to help Andy Sebaldi (our company’s production line designer) and Timothy Cheung (our marketing guy) produce and sell the thing I’d created last semester. The semester before last, I had created three weapons and two ammo types that worked reasonably well by stealing designs wholesale and/or pasting them together like Frankenstein’s monster. Then, last semester, I decided that made me qualified me to make a dual-belt-fed machinegun.

Nate’s Fuckup, as the project was known as internally, ended up being heavier than an FN Minimi, despite the fact that the NF used advanced materials brought to this world by dimension-hopping Nazis and the Death Goddess-worshipping clones that were trying to kill them. There was also the problem of operating the thing. At the end, it had two cocking handles, and the chain had to be ejected via what looked like a magazine well. Also, to take the most advantage of its dual belts, you’d need three operators, one to fire and two to load. The boxes on either side also prevented the use of folding stocks. Luckily, the design could use a bunch of parts and the ammo from the Maccabee assault rifle. It wasn’t my finest creation, but it worked. Mostly. Nari was also helping to iron out the kinks.

While I was doing that, I also was the only one able to train armorers in our products. Sure, Nari was just as familiar with the designs as I was, but she was only ten. I could ask potential customers to learn how to maintain their purchases from a girl. If they didn’t like it, well, that would be good for them. Making them learn from a ten-year-old of any gender with a bit of an ego complex… Hell, if I was getting annoyed doing that, I couldn’t ask my clients to.

There were also the more conventional problems that came from making weapons. The first raised its ugly head. Foolishly, I assumed that selling only to law enforcement would help prevent controversy. Instead, a client police department gave one of our pistols to an officer who shouldn’t have been entrusted with a butter knife.

What happened next defied all common sense. On his first mission, the cop in question reported to a routine domestic dispute. Things began to go wrong when he pulled up in front of a house five blocks away. Then, claiming he “saw something moving” put half a magazine through the door of a random house. Several of those rounds hit an innocent bystander who had been vacuuming. He died almost instantly. Before the police could even make a statement, Twitter erupted with information about how the police in that town had a history of abusing local minorities.

Meanwhile, somehow our guns were getting shipped to unapproved buyers. The national media hadn’t picked up on it yet, but several unsavory groups (Parahuman Separatists, gangsters, and a white supremacist group) had somehow obtained a few of our weapons. Annoyingly, the serial numbers had all been filed off. I had checked our sales just to make sure Timothy wasn’t breaking our “law enforcement and military only” rule. He hadn’t. Every address he shipped to was to a legitimate customer.

I was busy waiting for the idiot police to make their statement and desperately trying to track down every weapon my company had ever created when there was a knock on the door. “Yeah,” I said to the police officer in charge of the armory on the other end, “I’ll call you back when you do the inventory.” I put down the phone and walked to the door.

When I opened up, I saw a blond woman wearing sunglasses, riding boots, wide-brimmed straw hat, and a sundress. Everything about her was expensive. Behind her was a red-haired woman with green eyes and fox ears. The red-haired woman had an umbrella propped against her shoulder, and under her old British army jacket, I could see a bulge under her shoulder that indicated she was carrying a gun.

“Charlotte! Eliza!” I said. “This is quite a pleasant surprise!”

Idiotville’s police chief suddenly interrupted me. “While we admit that Officer Clark may have acted inappropriately, without the penetration power of our new sidearm, Mr. Walker would still be alive today. We need to have a serious conversation about the equipment law enforcement officers are allowed to use.”

I whirled around to face the TV. “You fffff…” I suddenly remembered my audience. Shutting the TV off, I said, “Anyway, please, sit.” I gestured to the two chairs in front of my desk. “We haven’t seen each other since the semester ended!”

“Certainly,” Charlotte, the blond one, said. She took off her glasses as she crossed the threshold to take the indicated seat. As she did, she took in my cramped office, a mixture of disapproval and pity on her face. Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward was the daughter of English nobility and not exactly used to offices only able to sit three people, a desk, and a TV. This was a woman who had gotten a Maybach for her sixteenth birthday.

“So, what are we interruptin’?” Eliza asked in her Cockney accent as she closed the door behind her. Eliza Henderson was Charlotte’s adopted sister. Before the Blackmoor-Wards had adopted her, she had lived her life in complete poverty. She hadn’t completely assimilated into the Blackmoor-Wards, and I loved  her for it.

“Some idiot,” I said, “didn’t check his targets. His superiors decided to blame the gun. The gun I sold to them.” I gestured to the papers as I sat down. “And, if idiot customers weren’t enough, weapons are ending up in unauthorized hands as well. I’m trying to figure out how before I get in the news for that.”

“Bloody ‘ell, Nate,” Eliza said. “I thought things’d be simpler ‘round you when you quit spying and started selling guns to cops. Next you’ll be tellin’ me that…”

“Yes, yes,” Charlotte said, cutting off her foster sister. “Pleasantries are all very fine, but…” She paused and took a deep breath. I watched her warily. If Charlotte was skipping pleasantries, shit was getting real. “Nathan, we have a problem.”

I knew it. There was no way Charlotte would suddenly fly across the Atlantic Ocean to turn up in my office without any warning under normal circumstances. There was only one thing I could think of that would make her do something like this. It had to be something related to The Final Prophecy.

The Final Prophecy apparently foretold of three great forces that would end the world. The first force was the Lord of Death. I had met some of her followers, on a trip to North Korea, known as The Dragon’s Teeth. When I had been there, the North Koreans had been losing. Now, The Dragon’s Teeth were globally acknowledged to be in control of Korea.

The next one said to exist was called The Architect. I had actually met him. His name was Mubashir. He was pretty chill when he wasn’t subconsciously warping the very fabric into whatever he wanted. I had watched someone literally blow Mubashir’s brains out. In response, Mubashir went into this odd, subconscious state, somehow reabsorbed his expelled gray matter and skull, then turned the shooter into a tasteful fountain. He remembered none of that.

The other group, sometimes called The Angels of Vengeance, other times The Fire Angels, well, I had no clues about what they were. All I knew is if they were anything like the other two, I didn’t want to meet them.

“What is it?” I asked, dreading the answer.

“Well,” Charlotte said, “One group of people who believe in The Final Prophecy called the Defenders of Fuji somehow sealed a group of highly trained warriors in a sort of… pocket dimension, I think. This group, called the Heralds of The Architect, have been trained since birth to seek out The Architect and convince him to save the world from the other Three.”

“Wait,” I said, “a… pocket dimension? How does that work?”

“People’ve been asking for a thousand years, apparently.” Eliza said.

“Apparently,” Charlotte said, “this… technology has been around for thousands of years. The means to obtain it… have always been astronomically expensive in the most literal meaning of the word. The materials required are not found naturally on Earth. The only way to get them is to hope an asteroid bearing them falls into your land. Then, you need to run an extremely powerful current through the space materials and the items you wish to transport. Eventually, the items come back. Don’t ask me how it works, nobody knows.”

“You realize,” I said, “that this sounds insane.”

“You know a Jumper,” Charlotte said reasonably. “How different is this?” Jumpers were Parahumans who could “jump” between two points in our dimension by going through a different one.

“Yeah,” I said, “but that literally happens every day. I never have even heard of something like what you’re talking about, unless you’re talking about science fiction. This is… this is…”

“As weird as The Architect?” Eliza asked.

I thought about it for a moment. “Almost,” I finally said, “and thankfully, nowhere near as fucking terrifying.” At least whatever this was couldn’t turn you into tasteful furniture while you screamed until you no longer had a mouth or lungs.

“Anyway,” Charlotte said, somewhat annoyed by how off the rails the conversation had gotten, “the point I’ve been trying to make is that the Defenders of Mount Fuji say that their pocket universe is about to break down. When that happens, the team they sent into the pocket dimension will come back.”

“Sounds like they don’t need our help,” I said. “What do they need us for?”

“The team went in five hundred years ago,” Charlotte said. When she saw my shocked expression, she continued on. “Apart from the culture shock, there is the problem of communications only being one-way. The Defenders of Fuji have only been able to send supplies in. There are reports of Aztecs surviving in these pocket dimensions for hundreds of years, and in 2012, a group of Mayan Parahumans were released from a pocket dimension as part of the Long Count cermony. The thing is, all these groups ingested a type of brew that slows breathing. In other words, they were comatose when they went in, and apparently were comatose for their entire duration. This elite group was supposed to spend the entire time awake.”

“I don’t fancy that,” Eliza said. “I ‘eard a story Father… er, Lord Blackmoor-Ward, not me biological dad… tell about a guy ‘oo volunteered for testing back in the eighties. Poor bastard thought ‘e’d be goin’ in for a few minutes. The scientists got it wrong and ‘e was in that place until ninety-four. We thought ‘e’d died, so we didn’t send anything after ‘im. When ‘e came back, it was right in a box in an archive. Everyone had just gone ‘ome for the weekend, so ‘e spent two days screaming.” She shuddered. “Poor wanker almost died in that box from suffocation. ‘E also can’t talk for some reason.”

“So,” I asked, “are we coming in as a rescue mission, first aid, or something else?”

“It depends,” Charlotte said. “Nobody knows what they’ve seen or done in there. But the Defenders of Fuji are worried that they’ve given these Heralds of The Architect ‘an inaccurate picture,’ to use their exact words and they might go rogue. Considering they’ve been given the opportunity to modernize their techniques…”

“And how many are there?” I asked, a sinking feeling in my stomach.

“One instructor,” Charlotte said. “Plus fourteen Jumpers. You can see why this might be a problem, can you not?”

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Track 23: Coming Together

The room turned into kind of a blur at that point. I had to sit down on one of the benches nearby in order to collect myself. Everyone was glued to the TV, most speculating on who had done this and why. Those questions would probably start running around in my head. But right now, I couldn’t really concentrate on anything.

“Well, this is bad,” Charlotte said. “The only way something can come out of this is if the US correctly identifies who did this.”

As she was saying this, my phone rang. Numbly, I took it out. “It’s Timothy,” I said, answering Eliza’s questioning look.

As soon as I pressed the button to receive the call, Tim breathlessly said, “…You there? Hey? Hey? Oh, you’re there! Are you seeing the news?”

“About the attack on DC?” I asked numbly.

“Yeah!” Timothy said. “This is perfect! If the Maccabee gets ready soon, we’re going to sell hundreds to the DC police alone! And think of the civilian market! The profits will be the stuff of legend!” I wanted to scream at him, to ask if he had any soul or if he had already sold it, but before I could collect myself enough to draw breath, he said, “I gotta tell Nari, May and Andy the good news.” Then he hung up.

“Well,” I said, “Timothy thinks he could make a profit, so there’s that.” I put my phone back in my pocket. “Eliza, Charlotte, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go vomit.” And with that, I walked off.

Needless to say, I couldn’t concentrate classes that day. Especially since when I finally snapped out of it the questions began to surface. For instance, who could pull off that kind of attack? And if they had those kinds of resources, why would they do that? If someone wanted to disrupt the US government, it would be much safer and infinitely more profitable to create a cable channel. While various super criminals and terrorists would sell what remained of their soul to do something like that, I kind of doubted the vast majority of them, even the well-known names, had the resources to pull it off. Most governments, even the ones that hated America, probably didn’t want to provoke the one country to ever drop the bomb on an enemy.

There was only one group I could think of: The Dragon’s Teeth. However, I wasn’t one hundred percent convinced by that line of thinking. First, I had only been able to look at this kind of thing for a little over a year. For all I knew (and despite my hopes,) there could be other groups similar in power and scope to The Dragon’s Teeth. Also, it didn’t seem like their style. Unless some kind of assault on the continental US was following, I doubted that they’d show their hand so early.

When I met up with Eliza and Charlotte at dinner, I mentioned this. Charlotte’s response was to say, “Well… do we really know that? After all, the only country they’ve invaded was North Korea. This might be a diversionary tactic.”

I sighed. “You’re right.” I laughed suddenly.

“What’s so funny?” I looked up. Bai had a tray of General Tso’s chicken, some rice, and some soda.

“Well,” I said, “if John, Nari and Sunny show up, we’ll be the foremost experts on The Dragon’s Teeth… outside of their creators, that is.”

Charlotte glowered. “I’m not sure how funny I find that.”

Eliza shrugged. “Better’n crying, innit?” She paused. “But ‘e might not necessarily be right…”

As she trailed off, Bai cut in. “Well,” she said, “the various government agencies know more. And if we don’t count a certain someone as one of the creators…” By “certain someone,” we all knew she was talking about the school’s President, “…or discount the chance he confided in others, there are potentially hundreds who are better informed than us. And that is if we discount the Teeth themselves.”

“Well,” Eliza said, “Those are possibilities, sure… but what about the Grenzefrontier?”

“They’ve been rumored to be running from The Dragon’s Teeth, yes,” Charlotte said, “but I fail to see how they’re more… shall we say accessible than the other sources mentioned?”

“Remember last semester?” Eliza said, her signature mischievous grin lighting up her face. “We seemed t’get a nice, big influx of the anachronistic bastards. Best part? They’re all nice and gift-wrapped. Anyone can apply to speak to one.”

“But…” Charlotte said warily, “President Newton-Howell forbade us from investigating…”

“…From the NIU end.” Eliza and I said this in unison. I reached over the table to hug Eliza. It was somewhat awkward, but she seemed to appreciate it. “Eliza, you’re a genius.”

“Oh, believe me, Nate,” she said smugly, “I bloody know.”

“How do we get in, though?” I wondered. “They probably don’t let just anyone in, do they? I mean, these guys are prisoners, aren’t they?”

“There’s a registry,” Eliza said. “An interested person or group need only write their name, reason for visiting, and student identification number. Then, they wait for approval.”

“So we put down the truth,” I said. “I mean, I think The President would prefer it if I dropped my Dragon’s Teeth investigation entirely, but I doubt he would believe it if I did. So I visibly go around talking to Nazi refugees, maybe that’ll get him to calm down.”

“It could work to divert suspicion,” Charlotte said. “But what would talking to them gain you, apart from that?”

“No way of knowing until we do it,” Eliza said.

With that, conversation turned to other things. After finishing eating, Eliza and I went to the sign-up station. We decided to have both of us go in to the interview. The reason we stated for the person signing us up was that there seemed to be preferences given to groups of two to four. That had been explained to us by the person on duty, in a rather guiding manner. We obliged him.

However, one of the other reasons was that I kind of wanted someone who both knew a bit about The Final Prophecy and was more able to maintain emotional detachment to be with me to cross-examine any person we met with. Talking about a group that had killed several people I had worked with to a person who had been trained to hate me for my (very loosely-followed) religion was somewhat likely to make me flip. Plus, Eliza had similar training to me and a different way of thinking. She might be able to spot something I hadn’t.

Still, according to the person who helped us sign up, the next opening was in January. That was two months away. A little annoying, but there was nothing about it I could do. The next step was to write down a few questions I’d want to ask.

The only problem was the waiting. Around two weeks later, it got even harder. Turning on the internet and looking at the news, I discovered that the Russian Dumat had just suffered a similar attack. Looking at it, I knew I needed to know more. Two attacks on the capitols of super powers in a single month? That couldn’t be a coincidence.

The only problem is, I had no idea who had done it, or even if these two attacks were by the same people. As soon as I could get an opportunity, I decided to call upon the mighty Google to aid me. For two hours between classes, I looked at every English-language article on the recent attacks.

When I did, I found to my surprise how few pieces of information there really were. Yes, there was the massive speculation by hundreds of confused voices, and for the most part they were amplified (or sometimes even started) by the mainstream media, but there seemed to not be a single useful government press release.

For instance, the American press releases had a lot of patriotic mumbo-jumbo, but it was very vague on any actual details. The number of shooters was confirmed to be greater than one, but the exact number was not mentioned. Secret Service, DC cops, FBI agents, and EMTs were injured and/or confirmed dead at the scene, but exact numbers were not mentioned. Congressmen who had been killed were mentioned, but I assumed that was because they needed to be. Also, there were definite rumors of gas being used, but no one could say which side had broke it out. To top it off, no official time line had been released. The same held true for the attack in Moscow, but since it was still ongoing at the time of my research, I couldn’t really find it suspicious.

Eventually, I finally found a message board that had what seemed to be an accurate timeline of the Washington attack. The website was also working on a similar timeline for the Moscow one, but that proclaimed “THIS EVENT IS ONGOING! As such, we cannot triage new information as effectively as possible. If we have made a mistake, please correct us in the comments below.”

Seeing as the Washington attack’s thread had less severe warnings, I decided to look at that one first. The first thing it had was “Mattias4994 begins live stream, shooters enter the Capitol building.” Since I had time, I clicked on it. It was a YouTube video. As the ad played, I checked the description. There were two paragraphs in what I thought was French and two in English. The English part said how the vlogger in question had started the livestream about his DC trip, then all hell broke loose. It also mentioned how if we wanted, we could see the entire thing on Periscope, and that other highlights could be found on his YouTube channel.

Shrugging, I pressed the skip button on his add. It then showed a cellphone recording of the entrance to the capitol building. Near the bottom of the steps were two DC cops, one with what I guessed was a Bennelli M4 shotgun. The other had an M-4 assault rifle. The pattern was repeated again near the top.

The scene continued like that for about two and a half minutes. The vlogger talked excitedly in French, tourists wandered by, and the DC cops did their best impersonation of Tower of London guards. Then, things got interesting.

All of a sudden, there were odd popping sound. Instantly, I pressed j on my keyboard. The video jumped back ten seconds. When I heard it for the second time, I confirmed it. Gunfire. The vlogger and a good chunk of the tourists didn’t recognize it, but the cops did. The two at the top of the stairs entered the building. The ones at the bottom, meanwhile, turned off their safeties.

Back in the real life, I heard my phone ring. I paused the video and took out my phone. It was Timothy. “Hey,” I said, “What’s up?”

“Got some urgent news,” he said, “might be good, might be bad. The FBI moved its trials up. We’re going to have to get there December fourth, and will be there until the sixteenth.”

“Am I going to have to be there?” I asked. “I’m not really the marketing guy…”

“I need you and Nari,” Tim said. “I need the designers to give technical details. Normally, I’d be completely confident in my speaking capabilities, but they might want to know some weird bit of technical arcana that I never even thought of. Plus… I don’t want to be the one to say Nari can’t help with the demonstrations.”

“Well,” I said, “I think I can get my gunsmithing teacher to count three weapons and two ammunition types to count as a final… I’ll see what I can do about the others.”

“Good,” Tim said. “Just so you know… we’re going to be meeting with other organizations. Anyway, see you soon.”

He hung up before I could get him to clarify. Telling myself that it had to be other law enforcement agencies wanting to buy some more robust weaponry and not an insane plan to arm… undesirables, I turned back to the video.

The person recording seemed somewhat curious as to what was happening. It was hard to tell as I didn’t speak French. Still, the gunfire had stopped. I wondered why, and the two cops outside were obviously wondering the same thing.

Then, a man with red hair and wearing a brown coat with oddly long sleeves walked by the vlogger. He made a beeline towards the two cops on the Capitol’s steps. When he got fairly close, one of the cops raised a hand and yelled at him to get back. In response, the red-headed man raised his arm and there was the sound of a pistol. The red-haired man switched his aim and fired again. Both the cops collapsed.

Then, as if the gunfire was a cue, a bunch of vans skidded to a halt in front of the building. I paused the video after they begun to disgorge their occupants. Since the vlogger had either regained use of his feet or became disappointingly sane and started to run, I saw that the men exiting were all armed and wearing ski masks. There was also something similar about them… something I couldn’t place.

However, before I could figure it out, my phone received a text. It was from Mubashir.

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