Track 25: The Shape of Things to Come

Nari and I stood in the converted warehouse looking down at our factory from the supervisor’s office. Well, technically it wasn’t just our factory, May and Andy had controlling shares and Timothy also owned a significant part of the company as well. The assembly line producing May’s products was next door. After we stood looking down on the assembly lines, we each considered the rectangular pieces of paper in our hands.

“Well,” I said, “this is… very generous.” It wasn’t as much as the money I had stashed into a Swiss bank from my Korean adventures, but it was starting to get there. “I mean, a lot of it is going to go back to the government, but at least I’m going to be able to use it this time.”

“Wait,” Nari asked, frowning slightly, “how much am I going to have to pay?”

“A little over forty percent, I think,” I said. Nari frowned. “Hey,” I said, “more money than you’ve ever imagined a single person possessing minus around forty percent is still more money than you ever imagined a single person possessing.”

“True…” Nari grudgingly admitted.

“Plus, it could be worse,” I said. “You could have been working at McDonalds and discovered you still had to pay ten percent.”

Nari and Sunny had both applied for US citizenship as soon as we got into the US. It was decided that she might want to have an official country of residence, and since she was earning all her money there, the US was as good a place as any. Also, she basically told me that she’d be happy anywhere there was a decent metal scene.

“I wonder,” Nari said, “is there some way I can see you? I heard that the New Year’s and Christmas celebrations are quite glorious here.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” I said. “My parents will be glad I’ve brought a friend over who hadn’t recently been shot at, so that’s a bonus. Maybe May and Andy can drive you guys over.”

There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” I said. The door opened and in walked Timothy.

He had a smug smile on his face that I’d learned to interpret as his “I just got a new customer” face. “You were right,” he said. “Your hometown’s police were willing to switch to our weapons based on regional affiliation. Based on that, I was able to get full replacement for their pistols. And I got Boston and Worcester to do a full replacement of pistols and a partial replacement of assault rifles and SMGs as well. Plus, many law enforcement agencies across the globe have put in orders for the full-sized underbarrel shotguns. By the way, making the Maccabee and the Ballpeen compatible with M-4 attachments was a stroke of genius.”

We had recently completed the FBI’s contest for a next-generation pistol. It was a particularly difficult one. FN Herstal had, of course, fielded its Five-seveN and the 5.7x28mm round. Heckler & Koch had also dusted off their UCP concept (that, and their 4.6x30mm ammo was their answer to FN’s Five-seveN) and tweaked it around for the competition. Not wanting to lose one of its more lucrative customers, Glock had teamed up with VBR-Belgium to create a pistol that could use both 7.92x24mm rounds and 9x19mm rounds. Both Colt and Smith &Wesson had also wanted to get in on this, so they both had submitted models in 5.7 and 4.6. Needless to say, the competition was quite tough. In the end, the FBI decided to do a limited test run of the Glock-VBR and the Uilon Mangchi among SWAT units.

The reason we had been chosen is probably because of Nari’s theatrics. The other companies had put their prototypes in nice, sensible shock-padded dust cases. Nari had decided to strap one batch of our models with chains to the rear bumper of a car and let them get dragged the last ten or twenty miles. Another batch had been put fully loaded in a Tupperware container that was also filled with water. Every pistol from all the manufacturers had fired ten thousand rounds without malfunction. But only one had gone through a torture test.

The other thing that helped was our partial adoption was the sheer power of the round. There were certain types of conventional plate and soft armor that our round could penetrate that the others could not. It also performed much better against exotic one-off types than other rounds. We’d had to make a lot of concessions to actually controlling the round, and as such I think the weight may have thrown off serious military buyers.

“So,” I asked, “who was the first to fully convert?”

Timothy’s smile became even more smug. “Oh, I didn’t tell you two already?” he asked with faux innocence. “New York actually fully converted, provisionally. They bought almost everything: the Uilon, the Ballpeen, the Maccabee, and the shotguns. It hasn’t shown up in your paycheck because the first payment hasn’t come in yet.”

“What do you mean, ‘provisionally?’” I asked.

“Oh, they’re just not going to replace everything instantly,” Timothy said dismissively. “They’re going to do it slowly, and if they run into any problems, they’ll either ask us to make the necessary changes or just stop. In the meantime, guess how many Uilons we’ve sold in the first installment to New York alone.”

“I don’t know, a hundred?” I guessed.

“Well, if you multiplied it by ten, you’d be right.” I stared in shock. Timothy laughed. “We’ve got at least thirty-three thousand to go, assuming they don’t want to arm auxiliaries or expand. We’re rich!”

“That’s great,” I said. I paused for a bit, then asked, “Any military clients?”

Timothy suddenly looked a little shifty. “Any particular reason you want to know?”

“Well,” I said, “The reason I’m in this business is to stop The Dragon’s Teeth from steam-rolling the entire world. I can’t do that alone, and civilians and law enforcement don’t really have the level of armament to stop something like a Charon or those VTOL gunships the Deets have.”

“Well…” Timothy said, “…I have a client who’s a little closer to the situation than the US is. The problem is I can’t sell directly to them.”

“You’re selling to China,” I said.

“Technically,” he said, “we, as a weapons manufacturer, cannot sell weapons or the rights to build copies to certain foreign countries, China definitely not being an exception. But if we were to sue them for making unlicensed copies and they were to generously settle out…”

“Ah.” I said, “If that’s the case, I think Nari and I may have gone somewhat deaf after I asked my question. I think you said that we definitely were taking only legal measures to sell our product because I trust you implicitly, but I couldn’t really say. Especially in court.”

“But he said…” Nari began. I elbowed her. “Ow!”

“Anyway,” I said, “I’ve got some unpacking to do. My apartment won’t set itself up, you know.” May and Andy had decided to give everyone a sign-on bonus when the first sales from the surgical glue came in. It wasn’t a lot when compared to our first paychecks, but it was slightly more than enough to get myself a decent apartment and a twelve-year-old car. I’d just gotten most of my clothes, a mattress, a dresser, and a fridge in. Now, I wanted to see about getting my desk built so I didn’t have to crouch on the floor to look at my laptop.

“Ok,” Nari said, rubbing her arm. “Have fun.” I could swear I her add “jerk” under her breath.

I left them and got into my aging station wagon and headed towards the apartment. The car itself was actually somewhat sporty for a station wagon, but it had gotten pretty thirsty in its old age. Now that my paycheck had come in, though, I didn’t really have to worry about that. I could just pay for the fuel costs, or even see if I could repair or tinker with it to solve that issue.

I drove the car (my car, I actually had my own car!) through the streets of Worcester. The city had, in the eighties, decided that a boom was coming and that they’d start getting ready by building. Brick and concrete buildings had sprung up. Most were, at most, three or four stories. However, occasionally, a few almost-skyscrapers would loom up over their smaller brethren. The city must have planned that the coming boom would allow them to build many more. Over thirty years later, people were still waiting for the boom.

In the meantime, most of the buildings were somewhat seedy. Grates stood in front of glass windows, ready to closed on a moment’s notice to protect the grime-stained windows of low-rent stores, and these were some of the better areas. The day’s gray winter skies and biting cold only enhanced the disreputable air. Still, the people were friendly, and the vast majority of areas I had not only felt safe, but welcoming.

My apartment was in one of the several towers that had been built in anticipation of the boom. Parking was underneath the building, thankfully. Otherwise, I’d have to learn how the bus could get from the building to the factory and rely on my parents for transportation every time I needed to get out of the city.

Parking my car, I suddenly felt a chill run down my spine, and it wasn’t the cold. I turned around. I was the only one in the parking lot. Unsurprising. It was a little past two-thirty in the afternoon. The weather only made it feel like night. I scanned the empty garage. No one there. I reached for my Berretta, only to remember that I couldn’t legally carry it, so I’d given Eliza all my weapons for safe-keeping.

Nervously, I got out of my car and began to walk towards the elevator. Suddenly, I heard what I was convinced was a whisper. I turned around. Nothing.

Before I had discovered Mubashir was the Architect, I would have dismissed it as the wind. Now… I didn’t think it was the wind. I also didn’t think it was Mubashir. I had heard his Architect voices, and whatever that was wasn’t Mubashir.

As I walked towards the elevator, I considered what it was. It sounded very familiar, like someone else I had met. Then, I heard it again. This time, I realized it wasn’t one person, and it definitely wasn’t the wind. It was at least two people talking in hushed whispers. Again, when I turned around, they weren’t there. But, judging by how loud they were, I should have been able to see them.

I decided the best thing to do was to get in the elevator and hammer the up button. When it finally came, I rapidly punched the button to my floor. When the door finally closed, I breathed a sigh of relief and leaned against the elevator wall.

I must have closed my eyes to do it, because suddenly, right directly in front of me, was Richard Forrest Taylor. My first thought was that he couldn’t be there because I had seen him die. During the Grenzefrontier’s attempted takeover of Nowhere Island, he had died in a secret elevator trying to interrogate a Grenzefrontier mole. I’d been too late to stop the mole from shoving a piece of glass into Richard’s neck. If Richard had somehow survived that, he’d obviously not bothered to fix the wound or clean up the blood that had soaked his clothes.

Before I could process this, Richard lunged forwards and grabbed me by the arms. In this move, I could see his face had become much paler. “Listen, boy,” he said, his voice a raspy gurgle, “she’s coming!” Speaking of his grip, if he was a ghost, he was remarkably tangible. My arms felt like they were being crushed by vises.

I gibbered somewhat incomprehensibly, finally managing to get out, “Wh-who’s coming?”

“I don’t know,” Richard said, “but she… she won’t let me go! SHE WON’T LET ANYONE GO, DO YOU UNDERSTAND? SHE’S COMING AND WE CAN’T STOP IT!” He began to yell and shake me. “SHE’S BRINGING US BACK! HER GAZE IS FREEZING ME! IT’S TOO COLD! IT’S…”

Suddenly, his voice was cut off. It was like he was trying to shout through soundproofing. He suddenly realized that he had lost speech and began shaking me harder. Then he began to turn to dust and blow away. The last part of him to leave was his grip.

A few seconds later, the elevator opened with a cheery ding. Zombie-like, I walked out of the elevator to my studio apartment. I unlocked the door, took off my shoes and coat, then sat on my bed. Something told me I had just had my first brush with The Lord of Death.

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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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Track 17: Fix Yo Hustle

Looking back on it, I can’t believe I ever forgot about Timothy. I wouldn’t be reminded of his existence until nearly the second week in October. Sunday afternoon after lunch and the study group, the board of Olympus Incorporated had welcomed Professor Krieger to discuss the first order of business: the sale of the pistols and ammo to the mystery group.

“Our friends,” Krieger began, “find that your pistols live up to all your claims so far. They admit to over-ordering the pistols, but are offering around five hundred dollars per additional ten thousand rounds of ammunition.”

“Any critiques?” I asked, trying to ignore that May looked disgusted with Krieger and Andy seemed like he was about to vomit.

“These weapons,” Krieger said, “are somewhat controversial. But the objective fact is they can penetrate any material you could reasonably expect and its bleedin’ uncle. It’s also an objective fact that the little bugger’s very noisy, and if you aren’t wearing some armor, you might spend a good few minutes before realizing you’ve been shot.”

With this comment, Nari asked, “Do our honorable buyers know enough to aim for the center mass? Or do they prefer to aim for the legs and shoulders?”

Kreiger laughed. “Oh, they know where to aim, missy. Sometimes, though, you can’t always hit the heart or brain. In those situations, a few very small bullets won’t do as much damage as a lot of heavy bullets. That being said, apparently a third of the people who use it are in love with it.” Nari smirked in satisfaction. “The other two-thirds want it to be lighter, have less recoil, have a higher rate of fire, or some combination of the three.”

Nari gave Krieger a glower that almost matched May’s. “Do they realize that the only way to control recoil for that gun is to make it abnormally heavy? Even if I added porting, switching from steel to polymer or seltsametall would make it kick too much.”

Krieger shrugged. “Just giving you their words, girlie.” He considered this. “You know, a platform with a bigger form factor could potentially…”

“Allow for an effective counter-balancing system, which in turn would allow for controllable, rapid semi and full-auto fire,” Nari said, rolling her eyes. “We know. We’ve thought it through, much better than any of your friends.”

“They’d like to hear your musings,” Krieger said.

Nari, suddenly cautious, looked hesitantly to May, Andy and me. Andy and May shrugged. I guess it was my turn. “Between company politics, finances, and just plain old engineering,” I said, “we feel we should keep our speculations academic for the moment. That’s not to say it can’t happen in the near future, but it’s unlikely.”

As I said this, I tried to not even think of the two guns in the case we had spent the morning testing in the forest. If you didn’t have anything to hold to scale, you could be forgiven for thinking it was an M-4/M-16 with an MP-5A3-style telescoping buttstock clone at first. That was because the receiver was designed to accommodate an M-4 barrel shroud. Then, you’d notice it took its magazines through a pistol grip and the ambidextrous charging handles were very similar to a SCAR or AK. If you held it up to an UMP-45, you’d also notice that without the barrel, this gun was more compact, but with the barrel it was slightly longer.

Internally, it was radically altered from all its progenitors to accommodate a revolutionary counter-balancing spring made up of a shelved university project called BounceCore (a material with a high compression strength that could be reduced by running a current through it.) The act of firing the gun pushed back the barrel and the BounceCore spring instead of the entire gun as well as pushing the six-and-a-half millimeter bullet forwards. The only problem with BounceCore was that in order to have it stand up to the kinetic and thermal energy our ammunition created when it fired, we had to make it way too thick to be put in a pistol. Still, that allowed us to make the rest of this SMG out of Seltsametall and synthetics.

It was deadly, efficient and easy to use. Nari and I were both rightly proud. In short, it was everything May (and me) did not want falling into the wrong hands, which also made it the kind of thing Nari wanted to put in boxes of breakfast cereal along with her biography.

We called it the Ballpeen, and it was beautiful.

Krieger, not seeming to suspect my lie, said, “I’m sorry to hear that, lads and lassies. I’ll give you until Saturday to come to a decision. In the meantime, I’m going to get some sleep. I’ve got Hell Semester pukes to deal with for the next five days.”

With that, he got up and exited the borrowed conference room. In the split second after Krieger had exited from view and before the door began to close, I saw my waiter from the Veranda, Timmy, sitting at the conference room across the hall, consulting his laptop. Before I could really register, the door was blocking my view again. Oddly enough, he appeared to be wearing business formal attire. Even the stuffiest of the business majors wore business casual unless they needed to present.

We waited for a few seconds to make sure Krieger had really left. When we were sure he was gone, Nari asked, “So, why did we not sell him the Ballpeen?”

“Because,” May said through gritted teeth, pulling out a manila folder, “I’m not sure they are who they say they are.”

“And even if they are,” Andy said grimly, “they’re still pretty dang shady.”

Before either of them could elaborate, the door to our conference room burst open. “I’ll say,” Timmy said, striding in like he owned the place, much to our surprise. “I mean, they’re definitely stiffing you.” He paused, and flashed what he obviously thought was a charming smile. “I can help with that.”

“…Who the hell are you?” Andy asked.

“This,” I said, “is Timothy, I believe. You’re a business major, right?”

“Technically,” he said, “my name is Cheung Tao, but my English name’s Timothy Cheung.” He sat leaned down, looking oddly serious despite his hipster glasses and stupid widow’s peak. “But that’s not important. What’s important is how I can help you.”

“And how could you help us?” May asked.

“First of all,” Timothy said, getting up, “not only is this room bugged, but it’s also not soundproofed.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the room he had previously been inhabiting. “Mine is. Plus I know how to baffle the bugs.” He got up. “If you would follow me…”

Andy, May, Nari and I consulted each other silently for a moment. Finally I said, “What the hell? Let’s humor him.”

“Ok,” May said.

We all got up. After we filed into the room, Timothy sealed the door. I noticed that his laptop, a MacBook of some sort, was plugged into the TV via an HDMI cable. The window shades were mostly drawn, except for a small sliver where what appeared to be a wireless speaker rested against the window.

“The cool thing about music,” Timothy said smugly, taking a gold-plated iPhone out of his pocket, “is that not only can it cut off room mics when played at the correct volume, not only can it disrupt laser mics if you put the speaker up to the window, but you can also impress your client.” He then pressed a button on his phone. “Aw yeah, it’s that dope shizzle, my nizzles!”

For one brief, shining moment, I thought I was listening to Under Pressure. Then Vanilla Ice started rapping. May, our hip-hop head, looked like she was in physical pain as soon as she heard the first few bars.

Sensing that Vanilla Ice hadn’t gotten him the points he had desired, Timothy said, “…I also have some Fetty Wap, Rick Ross and Limp Bizkit if they would be better.”

“How about if I put on some music?” May asked as tactfully as she could possibly could.

Once May had begun cleansing her palate with some Tupac, she asked, “So, Mr. Cheung, what proposal do you have for us?”

“Also,” I asked, “how did you find out about us?”

“Please,” he said, “Call me Timmy.” He turned to me. “Well, Mr. Jacobs, I discovered this company through you, when you were talking with your lovely lady about how many units you shipped.” He gave me a wink to let me know where he thought I had shipped that night and where it was delivered. I just stared at him. He continued on. “To be fair, you didn’t mention units of what, but I was intrigued. Then, at a recent study group for Black Market Econ at the Vulture Capitalist, I managed to get a bit more info out of Jennifer Kagemoto. Don’t worry, she didn’t say your name, just that she’d discovered someone working on some really cool guns. To be fair to her, she also had twice as many shots of tequila as you did of bourbon.”

I recognized the name Vulture Capitalist. Basically, it was The Drunken Mercenary for Business Majors, except instead of using sub-par booze, it kept outsiders away via exotic menu options and exorbitant prices. Any study group there would turn into a drunken revel.

“Are you offering us security?” I asked. If he was, I’d have to take it. I’d obviously messed up if he was here.

Apparently, I had accidentally implied I’d been insulted because Timothy quickly backpedaled. “No, no, no!” he said. “I just have some suggestions. For instance, I did some research. The closest analogue to your ammo I could find is .357 SIG. Would that be fair?”

“In terms of velocity and penetration,” Nari said, a little insulted, “.357 SIG is completely inferior.”

“Then why are you selling it for less?” Timothy asked. He pressed a button on his phone and the title Profitability in Weapon Deals appeared on the TV. He pressed another button and he went to a slide with two pie graphs. “These,” he said, “are what I estimate what the price of .357 SIG goes to. Since we’re selling wholesale, we’re going to look at the one on the right, which is cost to the end user per thousand rounds.”

He tapped on the screen. “As you can see, the actual cost of making and assembling the bullet is only about twenty cents per bullet. That means, of the six hundred and seventy-five dollars the consumer spends on, only two hundred dollars is actually spent on making the thing.” He paused for effect, but then moved from the red slice representing the cost to make the bullet, tapping the other slices. “Of course, the manufacturer spends money on marketing, design, benefits, royalties, most of which doesn’t concern you, since you only have shareholders at this point, or any need to market.” Finally, he got to the big green slice. “But this… this is the profit, or at least the gross profit. Now, can I ask… if the rules changed tomorrow, and you had to pay for materials yourself, how much would bullets cost?”

Andy spoke up instantly. “Fifty cents. If I budget in case of the machine breaking, possibly sixty. Most of that is due to the fact we’re in the middle of nowhere and we’re not producing a huge amount.”

“So,” Timothy said, “if you were to have to pay for materials, six thousand of the five hundred dollars you make would go to production costs. That seems a little off to me.” He shrugged. “Then again, if you’re running a charity…”

“If it’s a charity,” May said, finally opening the manila folder, “we need to review our cases. A few days after we shipped our first order, a Cartel middle-management guy living right on the US/Mexican border left his wife and kids for work. As soon as he closed the door, two men walked up and opened fire. A total of five rounds were fired, all of which passed through the man and the heavy oak door. Not only did he die almost instantly, but his wife, eight-month-old infant and fifteen-year-old son are dead. There are five other incidents I believe our gun was used in that ended in civilian casualties.”

“What was the goal?” Timothy asked. “Not your client’s, but yours.”

“Immediate goal?” I said. “FBI’s having a contest. We want in, and Krieger told us they could get us in.”

“Ok,” he said, “No shipments until we get proof they are who they say they are. We also need to find Krieger’s angle…”

“What about yours?” I asked.

“Simple,” Timothy said. “You guys are inventors who need a business guy to sell your products, I’m a business guy who’s looking for a job. Also, apart from the pistol, are you making any other things?”

“Originally,” May said, suppressing her bitterness, “this was supposed to be about just selling medical supplies and automated production.” She brightened up a bit. “Still, Power Sludge and my surgical glue have been approved by the FDA, so I’m going Washington in a few weeks. Andy’s going to be at the factory.”

“So we’re…” Timothy began, then realized that we hadn’t voted him in yet, ““…I mean, you’re also doing medicine and manufacturing. Cool. That’s something we can put sales of weapons towards.”

As May pondered this, Timothy asked, “Can I see the products you discussed?”

I put the case on the table. “You can look,” I said, “but you can’t touch, and you can’t ask how they work. Deal?”

“Sure,” Timothy said with a shrug. I opened the case. Inside was the second generation of the Uilon Mangchi and the two prototype versions of the Ballpeen.

“What’s that on the bottom of the machinegun at the top?” Timothy asked.

“It’s a collapsible foregrip, light and laser,” I said, resisting the urge to correct him that it was actually an SMG. “If you pull the trigger on the grip, you can switch between several settings.”

Timothy looked at the guns for a moment, smiling to himself. Finally, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe your products are Hollywood-ready.”


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Track 16: Tonight’s All Right for Fighting

After the awkwardness of Nari and May having to be in the same room for the tutoring session, I went to Krieger’s office to brief him on what I was using the various materials for. He was only available this weekend because he was teaching Hell Semester again. Luckily, Krieger is kind of a work machine and was able to meet me at his office.

The office was in Sun Tzu, which meant less walking. I knocked on the office door.

“It’s unlocked, boyke,” a South African-accented voice said behind me. “Just walk on in.”

I turned around. There, looking as lion-like as ever, was Professor Karl Krieger, his mane-like beard a little less well-kempt than usual. He had changed out of his drill sergeant uniform and was wearing cargo pants, Hell Semester t-shirt, and a raincoat. Judging by how dry the raincoat was, he had been waiting for me.

“Actually,” remembering about Mendez and Gupta, “I was thinking we could talk outside.”

Krieger raised an eyebrow. “Of course,” he said. “It being such a lovely day and all.” To punctuate this, there was a clap of thunder. Also, since we were on the top floor, we could hear the sound of rain pattering down on the roof.

As we entered the elevator, Krieger asked, “So, why were you requesting so much raw material? And why was much of it explosive?”

“Nari Lee and I are entering the firearm business,” I said. “May Riley and Andy Sebaldi are also in on it, May very reluctantly.”

“And the explosives?” Krieger asked.

“We’re making our own ammo,” I said. “I… saw a need for something that can reliably penetrate Dragon’s Teeth armor when we were in Korea. Our weaponry wasn’t quite up to par.”

“And your plans on advertising and distribution?” Krieger asked.

“Well,” I said as the elevator dinged open, “there was a contest for a new FBI firearm because…”

“Because .40 S&W was having trouble penetrating exotic armor,” Krieger said, rolling his eyes. “I heard. I also heard that you need a recommendation to get in. You also need to be able to produce a hundred for testing purposes, plus ten thousand rounds to put through each gun for testing purposes.”

“Oh,” I said. That was one plan down the drain. As we headed towards the door, I added, “the first part, I have no idea how to do. The second part, well, that’s why we have Andy.”

“Even if you did get a pistol out,” Krieger said, “and the Dragon’s Teeth invade, the program is limited deployment. Only a few agents will get assigned one, mostly Parahuman investigations, HRT and FBI SWAT. And even then, you realize it’s just a pistol?”

“I was kind of hoping that would lead to others adopting it,” I said. “And also building a following that I could sell the SMG and assault rifle I’m designing to.”

“Still,” Krieger said, “those are just personal weapons. They might kill a few of the foot soldiers, but how are you going to deal with their vehicles? I recall you were also quite impressed with them as well.”

I shook my head. “Someone else will have to deal with that.”

Krieger laughed. When he was done, he said, “You’re learning, boyke! In the meantime, I have some friends who have… an understanding with the FBI. They could use an armor-piercing pistol, caseless or otherwise.”

I looked around. No one was coming. “In other news,” I said, just loud enough to be heard above the rain, “if you’re still annoyed by the way things are going, Officers Gupta and Mendez might be sympathetic.” When I saw Krieger nod, I raised my voice. “In other news, I feel kind of bad for dragging you out here. Do you want me to get you a drink?”

Krieger accepted, and we got something called a Caribou Lou. Let me just say, if you like rum, pineapple juice, and getting pretty sloshed, you’ll like a Caribou Lou.

The next week wasn’t anything special. I had schoolwork, of course, and I was busy trying to make the SMG. Meanwhile, Andy was finding a place to put his assembly lines other than Sunny’s basement. He was also working with Krieger to get the first order completed.

It went on like this until Fight Night came. As I was putting on the suit I had brought (by the way, thanks, dad for making me bring it,) my cPhone beeped. I picked it up, seeing it was a phone call from Eliza. “Hello,” I said.

“I just realized,” Eliza said breathlessly, “it’s Fight Night, innit? And you work at The Drunken Mercenary. You can’t make it, can you? Oh God, I’m a right…”

“Eliza,” I said, interrupting her, “The Drunken Mercenary closes on Fight Night.”

“Really?” Eliza asked incredulously. “Why the bloody ‘ell’d they do that?”

“I asked Dmitri the exact same thing,” I said. “Apparently, the first Fight Night after it opened, a few fights broke out and there were pretty serious casualties. Think about it: you’re wasted and someone from Britain gets his head bashed in by Ulfric. Then you hear some… I don’t know, French people laughing at it. What would you do?”

Eliza paused for a bit. Finally, very grudgingly, she admitted, “…I’d fuckin’ cut ‘em up.”

“Apparently,” I said, “what finally caused The Drunken Merc to close on Fight Night was the Fight Night Riot of ’94. All I know was that it had something to do with the Rwandan and Bosnian Genocide and it… got ugly after that. Plus some Parahumans decided that they didn’t like other Parahumans and…”

“Say no more,” Eliza said. “I’ll just fix me makeup, then I’ll meet you there.”

The Veranda was on the border between Rogue and Business territory. A good decision, as the Rogues and Business majors were typically the only ones who could afford to eat there regularly. As I walked, I noticed that a lot of businesses, specifically the ones that distributed alcohol, were closed. Also, Campus Security was out in force around the AMS/Shadowhaven areas. I saw four Bearcats and several checkpoints manned by Security officers in combat gear. The last time I had seen Security carry such heavy equipment carried openly was when the Grenzefrontier had invaded the campus.

When I finally got into the building the Veranda was located, I saw Eliza was waiting by the elevator. She was wearing a beautiful dress that was a bright, soothing green to match her eyes. She was also tottering a bit on heels, and she seemed a bit nervous. Behind her, guarding the elevator, were two female Campus Security Officers. They weren’t in full combat gear, but they both had slightly heavier vests on, and one had a SPAS-12 and the other had a P-90.

“Oh, there you are!” she said, moving towards me as fast as her heels would allow. “Finally! These blokes ‘ere were gettin’ a bit nervous!” One of the guards, a somewhat tanned-looking woman carrying the P-90, waved awkwardly. She looked away when Eliza embraced me. “Apart from that, you’re actually a little early. I was just nervous because, well, I’ve never done anythin’ like this before.”

“Me neither,” I admitted. “I’m glad I’m doing it with you.” We stood there standing awkwardly. “Uh…” I said, motioning towards the elevator, “do you…”

“Yeah…” Eliza said. “Yeah! Let’s go do that.”

“If you’re going to go up there,” the guard with the SPAS-12 said, her voice tinged with amusement, “we’ll have to check you for weapons. This is the only place on campus tonight serving alcohol, so you can’t be armed here tonight.”

After surrendering our weapons (I had my Berretta and my SIG, Eliza had a CZ-75,) we took the elevator up to The Veranda. Oddly enough, it was quite empty. I guess, since the Veranda didn’t have any TVs, people just stocked up on booze and watched Fight Night with friends.

Speaking of The Veranda’s interior, it reminded me a lot of how the Blackmoor-Ward looked. It was, in short, expensive. Everything, from the scented candles on the tables and the romantic lighting, to the intricately carved, yet surprisingly comfortable chairs, screamed that it was expensive as it was tasteful.

The most wonderful thing about the restaurant, though, was the view. It was located on the top two floors of one of the taller buildings on campus, with only the hospital being taller. The Veranda made use of its prime location by having glass exterior walls and ceilings, giving the diner an amazing panoramic view of the island. The effect was lessened on us due to the torrential rain reducing visibility, but from where we were seated, I swear I could see the outline of the Hell Semester Barracks in the distance and the lights they were using to illuminate Fight Night.

“Fucked up, innit, mate?” Eliza asked, following my gaze. Her ears were flattened, and I could tell she was remembering something by the way the normally mischievous gleam in her eyes had disappeared.

Just as I was about to agree, a voice said, “I take it that means you’ll want something to drink to start off?” We turned around to see a very trim Asian student with plastic-rimmed glasses and over-gelled hair arranged in a peak. He was wearing a tuxedo and an apron, obviously part of his uniform. Something about his attitude suggested that he definitely wasn’t an AMS, Rogue or Shadowhaven student. It was probably that when we turned to stare at him, he flinched. “Sorry,” he said hurriedly, “kind of a stupid joke…”

“But accurate,” Eliza said, obviously forcing some of her normal cheer into her voice. “If you’ve got any scotch, I’d like a double.” I noticed that her ears were still drooping.

I probably wasn’t looking very happy myself. Remembering the certificate included two free drinks, I added, “I’ll have your best bourbon.” Suddenly realizing our waiter hadn’t introduced himself, I asked, “By the way, what’s your name?”

“Oh!” our server said, suddenly realizing his mistake. “Hi! My name is Timothy, and I’ll be your server this evening. Would you like to order some drinks to start off your meal?” I noticed that when flustered, he had gone from a neutral, if somewhat clinical American accent to a slight Chinese accent. Still, his English was very good.

Eliza, however, was probably too busy laughing at Timothy’s mistake to notice his accent shift. Eventually, after Eliza stopped chuckling, we made our order again. This time, we were more specific about the kind of booze we wanted.

After Timothy was done taking our drink orders, he asked, “Hey, weren’t you one of the guys who killed Eric and James Roberts?”

I pointed at myself, a feeling of dread. Timothy nodded. “When was this?” I asked.

“Last semester,” Timothy said, “during the break-in at the hospital’s Secure Records section.”

“First off,” I said, “I might not have killed him. There was another person with me. Secondly…”

“I know,” Timothy said, a note of unrepentant glee in his voice. “But you might have killed him, so I should probably thank you. The guys were in my Project Management and Accounting classes. Even the other Nazi sympathizers hated them.” He then pocketed his pen and pad. “Anyway, your drinks will be right out.” He then hurried off, nearly skipping for joy.

“Bit of a sociopath, isn’t ‘e?” Eliza remarked when he was out of earshot.

I nodded. I was a little disturbed at how happy he was two people he had known personally were dead. Still, when he came back with our drinks, I noted that ours were filled to the brim, while our neighbors who ordered shots only had theirs filled three-quarters of the way. Timothy sure knew how to suck up.

Conversation was mostly light between Eliza and me. We did exchange drinks for a few sips just to see if we could tell the difference. We could. Timothy, however, made sure that they were filled up. When I mentioned that my certificate only covered three drinks, Timothy assured us that it was on the house. We still switched to water, me after my fourth shot, Eliza after her fifth. Needless to say, when some old acquaintances of mine came in, we were feeling pretty good.

“…so, those clients Krieger got us want five prototypes,” I was saying to Eliza as Timothy removed the plate my steak had been on. “They also want…” I paused. The group that had been drinking shots had left and the tables they’d occupied had been split apart. Sitting at one of them were Agents Takashi and Brosnan. As I stared, Brosnan raised his glass in a mock toast, a patronizing smirk on his face.

Champagne, I thought. The bastards are drinking champagne while people are beating each other to death only a few kilometers away. As soon as I thought that, though, I reminded myself, Hey, the only reason you’re here is because you’ve just eaten the most expensive steak you’ve ever laid eyes on. Don’t judge.

“What’s wrong?” Eliza asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Takashi and Craig are here.”

“‘Oo?” Eliza asked, cocking her head. Then, her ear closest to where Takashi and Craig were sitting twitched. “Wait, they’re the blokes near us oo’re drinkin’ bubbly and laughin’ it up, right?”

“Well,” I said, noticing Takashi now was directing a murderous stare at me, “Takashi’s not exactly happy.”

“Are… are they the guys ‘oo got you to…” Eliza began, “…to… to, y’know…? Then bleedin’ stiffed you?”

I nodded, desperately trying to keep myself from causing a scene. Takashi, however, was under no such restrictions. He stood out of his chair with such force that it fell over. In response, Eliza’s triple claws shot out of her hands. Before she could launch herself at Takashi, I grabbed her wrists, nearly setting my hair on fire from the candle.

“Eliza,” I said, staring into her pale, shaking face, “it’s not worth it.” The look on Eliza’s face was downright murderous. According to what I knew about Lupines (and Eliza in particular,) when the claws came out, that meant violence was extremely likely.

From his table, I could hear Brosnan call out warningly, “Takashi…”

Takashi, meanwhile had appeared at our table, and he was livid. “You…” he said.

I ignored him and kept staring straight into Eliza’s eyes. While Takashi’s expression was a little scary, Eliza was utterly terrifying. Her face completely white with rage, she was trembling with the rage only a berserk Lupine could muster, and blood was dripping from her extended claws onto the expensive white tablecloth. Her attention rested evenly between me and Takashi, ready to spring into action if he made a move.

“Eliza, look at me,” I said. “He isn’t worth it.”

“Do you know every person you killed?” Takashi asked, his voice quivering.

“Takashi!” Craig yelled. “Don’t aggravate the bloody Lupine!”

“Eliza,” I said, still ignoring Takashi, “repeat after me: he isn’t worth it.” I’m not even sure she could even understand me at that point. From my grip on her wrists, I could feel her vibrate with rage.

“Your little playdate in North Korea,” Takashi said, “somehow managed to kill a few of my close friends.”

At the word playdate, I almost let go of Eliza’s wrists. Yet somehow, I instead found the self-restraint to say, “He’s. Not. Worth. It.”

“Do you want to know how I know?” Takashi asked. Behind him, I could see his partner get up and begin to move slowly towards us, making obvious effort to appear non-threatening. Takashi was as oblivious to this as he was to the berserk Lupine. “I know this because the nine-year-old girl they were supposed to bring back miraculously ends up in your custody. She’s also carrying my best friend’s side-arm in footage you provided to us!”

That explained the team that wasn’t NIU, North Korean or Dragon’s Teeth. They were UNIX, and they were there for Nari. John was right. Ironically, he had figured it out when Takashi had shoved the barrel of his pistol into my eye.

At the moment, I had bigger problems to worry about. Takashi’s impassioned shout hadn’t just attracted the eyes of all the diners, but it had also pushed Eliza too far. She began to struggle violently to break free of my grasp. I knew the first thing she would do would be to rip Takashi to shreds. After that, I had no idea what she’d do, other than that it would most likely be extremely violent. The last time I had seen her even close to this, she had literally spilled someone’s guts. I had the pleasant experience of being in the same ambulance as that victim. Eliza had been much calmer in that situation.

Before she could break free, Brosnan grabbed his partner and flung him away from us. “YOU BLOODY GIT!” he yelled. “YOU FUCKING SHITSTAIN!”

“What fu…?” Takashi asked. He made a loud squeak instead of finishing his curse because Brosnan had kicked him in the balls.

“You fucking moron!” Brosnan shouted. “Now, I have to hurt you, or a Lupine goes on a bloody rampage.” Takashi yelped as Brosnan’s foot connected again. Brosnan continued, “You should know better than anyone what a Lupine can do when pissed, especially a Fighter-type female!” He stomped on Takashi. Hard. “You endangered a room full of civillians over a fucking vendetta.” He reached down and pulled Takashi up. “Get out of here. And be thankful I’ve not yet washed my hands of you.”

Takashi began to walk off, his suit rumpled and his nose and lips bleeding. For a second, it looked like he was going to say something, then he thought better. Eliza watched him leave. I was glad to note that the color was returning to her face.

After Takashi had left, Brosnan turned to us. “I apologize for the interruption,” he said. “Please, have a pleasant evening.”

“Oi,” Eliza said as Brosnan turned to leave. She was whispering in an out-of-breath, yet scarily controlled whisper.

“Yes?” Brosnan asked, turning around.

“Control your partner,” Eliza said, still in that quiet, yet dangerous voice. “Or next time, I will.”

“Of course.” Brosnan said. “I can assure you, of the two of us, it is not my partner you need to worry about.” He bowed and walked off.


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