Track 2: End Run

We left the office and headed to one of the dorm rooms in the Harvard quad. On the way, we passed the executed JTF2 operators. I had been hearing some things about Canada and how they were dealing with the fallout of the Dragon’s Teeth War. Mexico was being cautious; after all, they had their troubles before the war. Canada, meanwhile, had taken two strategic plasma forces when they had advanced south before retreating. The first thing they had done after signing the armistice was make a compact with New Zealand and Australia that was very much like what had been the EU, except they also were uniting under a join military structure.

“So,” I said, “You planning on taking the fight to Canada?”

“No,” Olaf said. “We’re using the Swiss strategy.” When I shot him a quizzical look, he said, “Switzerland was one the only European country to resist longer than a few months. After we defeated this country, we decided that if they didn’t want to submit to the Death Mother, we didn’t have to feed them. The problem is, their population was too bloated to be maintained without assistance and they’d forgotten how to grow their own food. Besides, their soil is pretty much completely barren. We didn’t say it, but their choices were to join with us, starve to death, or find… other means of sustenance.” He turned to me and smiled. “They just agreed to join us last week.”

“Your idea?”

“Of course,” Olaf said. “Shame that we are reconsidering using the tactic.”

“Well,” I said, “considering it’s technically genocide, I’m glad you aren’t doing that.”

“It’s the only way to win,” Olaf said. “The Jacob’s Project put us on this path, and we have to complete it or die. We can change course slightly so the Death Mother isn’t too pained, but I will put the lives of my brothers over her comfort.”

“Alternatively,” I said, “you could always leave Earth and go back to whatever planet you came from.” We had entered one of the dorms just as I said this. Dragon’s Teeth lounged in the various tasteful chairs and their boots had scuffed the fine wood floor. Guns rested against richly paneled walls, wood tables and leather chairs. If the Dragon’s Teeth ever left, it would take a fortune to restore it.

Two Legionnaires in full body armor frog-marched a pale, red-haired woman with green eyes and fox ears down the stairs. She stared at me hesitantly, and looked back and forth from me to Olaf, as if she wasn’t sure I was real. It was Eliza.

“Eliza,” I said. “You ok? Have you heard from the others?”

“They say they put me in isolation a week ago,” she said slowly, as if she’d forgotten how to speak. “but they lie ‘bout that. ‘Aven’t heard from any of them since.” She paused. “Where were you?”

“I was in solitary for probably about six months,” I said. “Then they let me out.”

“I think it was only a few days we held you,” Olaf said.

“Fucking liar,” I said. “The leaves were falling when you brought me in, they were blooming when you brought me back out. Where are the rest of them?”

“I have a deal for you,” Olaf said.  “When the UN makes its little inspection, you can get everyone back. All at once. Just be cooperative.”

“When?” I asked. “I want a concrete time frame.”

“I was thinking that the first stop on our tour would be to release some prisoners,” Olaf said. “They see how well we’ve kept prisoners, and that we’re reintegrating them into society.”

“Such as it is.”

Olaf rolled his eyes. “Such as it is. We will fix much of this by the time they arrive.”

Eliza was looking at us questioningly, so for her benefit, I said, “Mass starvation and multiple outbreaks aren’t something you can fix in… how long? A month? A week?”

“Sounds like fun,” Eliza said, some of her normal sardonic behavior coming back in. “Can I go back to isolation?”

“He’s getting full rations,” Olaf said, “despite being an ungrateful little shit. And if you really want to go back to isolation…” Eliza’s face went even paler and she began to tremble. “Thought not,” Olaf said. “It’s amazing how normal humans think brutality is the end-all be-all to horrible things. The success rate for making people talk just by locking them in a room with no human contact or knowledge of the outside world astounds people.”

“The UN inspectors will realize its torture,” I said, “and they will ding you for it.”

“Ooooh, scary,” Olaf said.

The room went yellow and things began to blur. “I am going to ding you.” I didn’t need to see all the Dragon’s Teeth drop to their knees to know it was Alma. The creepy leader of the Teeth was pretty much a ghost at this point. “Olaf,” she said, her monotone voice more dangerous than usual, “of all clone commanders, you seem to be the one having the most difficulty adapting. It’s almost like you prefer the old ways, if not the old commanders.”

“The old ways are satisfying,” Olaf said.

“The old ways are going to kill millions,” Alma said. “I only allowed Switzerland because it was a back door into Europe. Never again. If you fail the UN inspection, I will send you back to Thebes. Are we understood?”

“Nobody’s going to pass,” Olaf said. “No matter what we do. And eventually, you’ll need me. So everything you’re doing here is pointless.”

“You have your orders, Commander,” Alma said. “Follow them.”

Olaf glared at her for a moment. Then he said, “Yes. Ma’am.”

Alma turned to me. “I have something to tell you, Nathan.”

“No, you don’t,” I said. “I think we’re done talking after you let him” I jerked my head over to Olaf, “run roughshod over my home for about a year. Now if you’ll excuse me-”

“Mayu Nakashima is not accounted for.”

“What?” I asked. “How can she not be accounted for?” If there was one thing that could be worse than the Teeth, it was Mayu Nakashima finding what she was looking for.

“We don’t know,” Alma said.

“If she’s in the US, and if I were her, I wouldn’t be anywhere else, she’s somehow managed to avoid thousands of checkpoints manned by highly trained individuals equipped with tech she couldn’t have thought up while she was in stasis,” Olaf said. “She’s been… a pain.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “she’s killed a few more Berserkers than I have?” Olaf glowered.

“We decided,” Alma said, “that it was safer to have her go after you than have her head straight to Mubashir. That’s why we’re releasing Eliza.”

“Wait,” Eliza said, “I can barely bloody walk, and you’re asking me to do 24/7 protection on someone? I mean, I’ll do it, but ‘e’s a fuckin’ goner.”

“She won’t kill him,” Alma said. “She needs him to get to Mubashir.” Mubashir Mubarak (also known as Moob) was the thing that could make Mayu worse than the Dragon’s Teeth. He had powers that could reshape reality and seemed to control him rather than the other way around. He could avoid unleashing them, but Mayu might have a way to change that.

“She won’t mean to kill ‘im, but she’ll flip for ‘alf a bloody second an’ he’ll be chokin’ on ‘is own blood!” Eliza yelled, incensed. “Did you fuckin’ see ‘er when she went for ‘im in Hawaii?”

“I know you didn’t,” Alma said. “And I know that when I can make contact with her, her mind is becoming rapidly more organized.”

“Wait,” I said, a sinking feeling in my stomach, “you can’t find her with you power? And she’s becoming functional but still trying to find Moob?”

“It’s her only way of focus, I think,” Alma said. “Her obsessiveness is letting her do incredible things. I just have a suspicion that if someone doesn’t let her down gently, she’ll snap. Or she’ll somehow shape Mubashir into what she thinks he should be.”

“You can’t pay me enough to get close to her,” I said. “Being around her, no matter what my history with her is, is pretty much an end run at this stage. The likely scenario, no matter what safeguards you put in place, no matter how much progress she’s made, is that she will kill me. She’ll find out I don’t know where Mubashir is, or she’ll snap like Eliza said, or you’ll send the Teeth to try and rescue me, and I will die. And I’d be fine with that, but you decided to release Eliza just in time for… for this. Fuck you.”

Alma stared at me for a long time. “You,” she said, “are not the only one with a death sentence. I am trying to fix that, but I need help.”

I sighed. “I know, something worse is coming.” I looked at Eliza. If I pushed this, she would probably be sent back to solitary. “Fuck. I have no choice, don’t I?”

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Track 1: Welcome to the Occupation

My beat-up Subaru station wagon drove down 495 from Worcester to Boston. It probably was one of more well-maintained things on the road.

For instance, my body was still recovering from the various burns that I had sustained in the Dragon’s Teeth plasma bomb out west. They still hurt and itched, and my back wasn’t doing too well from where a Dragon’s Teeth Berserker had thrown me through a desk. Also, my leg, which had been injured in a training session, had been acting up recently as well.

The few other civilian vehicles on the road were also pretty messed up. Unlike my Subie, there were only a few cars on the road that didn’t have shattered windows or smashed bodywork. Many had their frames bent so badly that I was sure they shouldn’t be driving. Every so often, I would see a car that had finally stopped working somewhere in the process of being pulled off to the side of the road where Dragon’s Teeth spider droids would dismantle it. Sometimes, I would see them broken down, either on the side of the road or in one of the lanes, other times I would see Dragon’s Teeth vehicles pulling them onto the vehicular graveyards on the sides of the road, and other times I would see spider droids breaking them down and putting the bits in dumpsters. Most often I would see the graveyards off to the sides of the highway, a relic of America’s former status of a nation of drivers.

The vehicles I saw the most were under the control of the Dragon’s Teeth. Over a year ago, these psychic clone soldiers had invaded most of the world. Russia, China, both Koreas, all of Europe and a triangle between Turkey, Israel and Iran had all been taken over as well as the United States. Almost every naval vessel had been sunk or captured, as well as most of the shipping. The US and several other major food-producing nations had most of their harvest destroyed, livestock slaughtered or accidentally released, and many of their farmers murdered, so starvation was rampant. Luckily, there were a lot less mouths to feed.

The Dragon’s Teeth had been, according to their new leader, created and controlled by a group called the Jason Project. They had apparently planned on liquidating a larger chunk of the population of captured nations and pushing onwards. That was also evidenced by the bombed-out buildings I’d pass. The East Coast had been one of the last places to fall, and, when it looked like Canada and South America may have saved us, the fighting had been intense.

Eventually, I got into Cambridge. The Dragon’s Teeth had set up a regional HQ in what had been the Harvard campus. Somehow, that hadn’t been destroyed. Most of the other buildings had been leveled and a few were still burning from plasma weaponry.

The depopulation of Cambridge was made painfully clear by my ability to find a parking space. I parked in front of what had once been a store, but was now bits of crumbling frame and a crater made out of charred construction material and glass. Another casualty of the Dragon’s Teeth’s plasma-based weaponry.

Several Legionnaires, Dragon’s Teeth soldiers with Roman-inspired armor, began checking under my car with little wheelie mirrors. An Arachne spider droid also was using a chemical sniffer to check for explosives. Eventually, one Legionnaire signaled for me to get out of the car. I did and they quickly frisked and scanned me. Then one Legionnaire motioned for me to follow.

The Harvard campus had significantly improved from the last time I had been there. Six months ago, I had been locked up in those dorms and had seen the various methods of punishment the Dragon’s Teeth had employed. During the first week, they had been hanging two or three people to each streetlight and lining people up against the wall every four hours around the clock. By the second week, executions had almost completely stopped. That didn’t mean that people weren’t still dying. Starvation and crime were starting to kill hundreds, and the Jason Project apparently had no idea how to deal with that other than killing. Most of the Dragon’s Teeth, however, were tired of killing.

The person I was about to see, however, just wanted to kill one more person. When I got into the room, I saw that Olaf was still massive as usual. The man, with his baby face, pale skin, and huge body, was using a desk as a chair. Dragon’s Teeth Berserkers were so huge that most chairs were ridiculously tiny. Olaf had also removed his exosuit to avoid shattering the desk. I remembered how he had thrown me through one a little over a year ago. Olaf didn’t like me.

“Nathan,” he said, looking at me coldly, “how’s the factory going?”

“As well as can be expected,” I said. I looked out into the courtyard below. “I thought Alma said no more executions.” In the courtyard below, a dozen or so men in ratty clothes were being lined up against the wall.

“She said no more civilians,” Olaf corrected. “Those guys are JTF2. Canada’s been violating the cease fire a lot recently.” As a peal of gunfire rang out, he said, “I think the reinstated cops have been helping them, but the Death Mother wants hard evidence before I liquidate them. Anyway, we’ve been getting off-track.”

“The factory is at capacity,” I said. “In fact, it’s going over-capacity. I’m pushing the machinery to its limit. By the by, you should know that when it breaks down, and it’s a miracle it hasn’t broken down yet, the only one who can fix it is Andy Sebaldi. And he’s in Australia.”

“And are you sure that all the weapons are going to Dragon’s Teeth forces? No clandestine deliveries to any resistance forces?”

“What resistance forces?” I asked. “If there are any resistance forces, none of them have made a move to contact me. Besides, I’m not stupid. I know you have a bunch of my friends.”

“The Dragon’s Teeth high command is turning over a new leaf,” Olaf said in a bored, sarcastic tone of voice, rolling his eyes dramatically. “We’re shocked, shocked, that you would make such accusations.”

“Let me rephrase that,” I said, “I know you have my friends. And I know Alma doesn’t have as tight a leash on you guys as she’d like me to believe.” After a pause, I added, “you know, I’m still not sure how many of my friends survived. I haven’t talked to them in several months, either.”

“And what are you going to do about it?” Olaf asked. “Right now, I’m just surprised you’ve been able to sober up enough to drive down here.”


“I can see you shaking,” he said disgustedly, “and I have some contacts among you people. What have to be the last few bottles of Jack Daniels from here to Worcester came into your possession and you’ve been moving on to the Johnny Walker and Knob Creek. Just keep making guns, and we’ll keep your friends alive.”

“Maybe,” I said, a rage burning inside, “this is a sign I need something else. A carrot.”

“My carrot is that I follow orders,” Olaf said, “and I act within the Geneva Convention.”

“You wanna see my stick?” I asked. “I can go home, get loaded as fuck, and break every single assembly line except the ones that make food and medicine. God knows everyone needs those two, and I won’t increase starvation just to get back at you.”

“I thought you said you didn’t know how those machines worked,” Olaf said, as if he had caught me in a lie.

“I have no clue how to repair serious problems,” I said, “but I spent several years learning how to break things. Then, after I’m done, I might just kill myself. That sounds like fun.” I began counting on my fingers. “The Picts will be pissed off because my redesigned of the 416 will stop, the Zulus will be pissed because they like the armaments I make, Alma will be pissed because I’m dead and that fouls up her plans, and the Legionnaires will be pissed because Alma’s pissed.” Olaf’s eyes narrowed. “And,” I said, on a roll, “even if none of that matters, I still win because I’ve turned off one more stream of resupply for you.” I sat down on a chair, breathing heavily.

In the silence that followed, Olaf’s head twitched. Finally he said, “You’ve got a very good understanding of how things work.”

“I doubt it’s any better than most of the countries you haven’t taken over,” I said. “You’re not as mysterious or unknowable as you think you are. And your position isn’t sustainable. You’ve taken a beating and overextended yourself. There’s no way you haven’t, and the other countries players are going to catch up.”

Olaf cocked his head. “Are you saying we should have kept going? Because that’s what I’ve been saying.”

“No,” I said, “I’m saying you’re lucky you stopped when you did. It’s only a matter of time before the first mass uprising happens. It’s only a matter of time before the first IEDs are planted. And I know that they’ve already started sniping at you guys already. You’re going to spend the rest of your lives putting down partisans, no matter what I do.”

“I think the world is going to be too busy starving to be fighting,” Olaf said, “but I might welcome that. It’ll solve the food distribution problem.”

I laughed. “Oh my God,” I said, trying to breathe, “the Jacob Project had no idea how to lead. We’re all going to die. We’re all going to slowly starve to death because they forgot people need food and people to grow it!”

“I’m glad you find this amusing,” Olaf said. “But that reminds me, we need to produce more Power Sludge.”

“The reason those lines are running at eighty percent,” I said, “is because if we fuck those up, that source of food disappears. I am not risking that.”

“That’s too bad,” Olaf said, “because we’ve killed most of the farmers.”

I leaned back. “Then congratulations,” I said, “The Jacob Project has killed us. We’re fucked. Farming is hard.”

“In other news,” Olaf said, trying not to seem worried, “The UN, or what’s left of it, is requesting they send in a monitoring detachment to prevent human rights abuses.”

“That should be fun,” I said. “You guys are pretty much designed to commit war crimes and they can’t do jack shit.”

“So you aren’t going to help?”

“What am I going to do to help?” I asked. “If I tell them what angels you are, all that’s going to do is just make them not trust me. You guys used psychoactive gases and left millions of witnesses, that has to be about thirty-six war crimes per person exposed or something.”

“That’s not the point,” Olaf said. “The remaining nations know that we’ve radically changed doctrine. They want to know that it’s moving in the right direction. There’s also secondary concerns, like non-proliferation, environmental protection, and economic recovery.”

“Did they say it was secondary?” I asked. “Because all of this seems like they’d be primary.” Environmental concerns, to me at least, seemed like it could be a huge concern. After all, the most powerful remaining member of the UN was Canada. Canada was near the northern ice caps. Based on how Christmas this year was a chilly seventy degrees Fahrenheit, those ice caps must be decreasing at a rather alarming rate.

“No,” Olaf said, now obviously concerned. After a while, he asked, “Would you like to meet with the people who’ve been captured?”

“That is what I’ve spent the past few months lobbying for,” I said.


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Track 33: This is the End

I take a deep breath and say to the Berserkers, “If I surrender, will you let everyone else surrender as well?”

“Take a look,” the Berserker said. “I know your cameras are up.” I did, and quickly notice that the defenders who aren’t fighting back, the injured, the tired, and the ambushed, were being zip-tied and secured. “If I had it my way,” the Berserker talking to me said, “I’d drop a tactical plasma bomb on you and piss on the ashes. But the Death Mother wants you alive. Oh, and don’t think about fighting back. Your little rip-off guns may work on the other Believers, but not on our armor.”

I looked at the fight again. Sure enough, they were doing fairly well except against the normally armored Deet soldiers, but were bouncing off the Berserkers like spit balls. It didn’t really affect my decision. I was done. I turned to the intercom once again, and said, “Ok, the Teeth have offered a deal. Basically, unconditional surrender. Do what you want with it.”

I then turned to Eliza. “Well, we might as well give up.”

She stood up and began to roll up the Kevlar panel. “I don’t think of it as giving up,” she said, her voice so quiet I could barely hear. “I think of it as living to fight another day.”

She then opened the heavy security door, revealing the massive frames of two Berserkers. They were too big to fit through the door, so the stepped aside and gestured for us to come out. I pushed myself out, and Eliza, after realizing I was moving out under my own power, exited before me.

The Berserkers quickly searched us and took any weapons they found. Then, one threw Eliza over his back and another did the same to me and the group began heading downstairs. When we got to the basement, I saw all the injured and captured defenders were brought down there. The one carrying Eliza threw her on the floor, but the one carrying me continued to walk off.

“OI!” Eliza said, getting up, “THE ‘ELL YOU TAKING ‘IM?” The Berserker, in response, kicked her in the stomach and stood on her.

“Hey!” I yelled. “What the fuck?”

The two Berserkers carrying me just continued on. We went through the sewers, eventually, after a good long while of walking, coming up around the train station. That station was now crawling with Charons, vehicles that seemed specifically designed to imitate Chrysler Escalades, and a new tank that looked like one of those WWI landships, except bigger. The vast majority of Dragon’s Teeth were Legionaires, and I could see that they, at least, were still mostly carrying their Pilum bullpup rifles and Gladius SMGs. Their distinctive Roman-inspired armor was either in a pixelated urban pattern, or a shiny chrome-like color polished to mirror finish. I saw a few armors change color.

There were a few of the new type of Dragon’s Teeth in what I now saw was African-inspired armor, and I noticed that many of them carried Pilum and Gladius as well, but they seemed to use my weapons when they could get their hands on them. I also saw Picts in their darker than black armor inspired by Gaelic designs, and to a man they had ditched their primary weapons for AK and AR-pattern weapons with the occasional MP5, MPX or FAL.

I was taken up into an office. The only other Berserkers I had seen were standing by the door, three on each side. Two had miniguns and ballistic shields and their Norse-inspired armor was bulkier and appeared to have a more powerful exoskeleton system than the others. The other four seemed to have taken their machineguns from dead US soldiers. Unlike the other Dragon’s Teeth soldiers who had only looked at me in passing, these guys had their glowing red eyes locked on me.

Inside the room, was a wooden desk and several bits of creature comfort. I knew this because the Berserker threw me down onto the desk, shattering it. A picture of what had to be the children of the office’s owner fell onto my face, and an LCD monitor clattered to the ground. Underneath my back, I could feel wooden splinters lacerating my back and a smashed plastic keyboard. My back hurt like hell. Above me, the fluorescent lights set in cheap, ugly asbestos ceiling tiles vibrated and other lights danced, mocking the pounding in my head.

“Please try and escape,” the Berserker said. I looked at him. He was wearing the bigger armor, but his ballistic shield was missing and his minigun was holstered on a backpack-like device. He then kneeled down and leaned in close so his huge mask was almost touching my face. “The Death Mother might want you alive, but I want you dead. You and your little team were the first infantry unit to kill one of us with small arms, and then you scrapped my mission to Japan.” All I could do in response was groan in pain.

He stood up suddenly. “Excuse me. I need to talk someone. Hopefully, I’ll be able to give him a retirement present.” He then left the room. His exiting through and closing of the door was surprisingly graceful for someone who had to exit at sort of an angle while ducking. His boots, however, caused the entire room to shake and dust to fall off the walls.

I, on the other hand, was dealing with what had to be a concussion. My back was also in such bad shape to the point that I was surprised to be feeling my legs. Even if I wanted to leave (which I didn’t,) it would have taken a superhuman effort just to sit up. I rolled off the desk, hoping to be able to find some painkillers in the shattered drawers, but instead spent the next several minutes crying in pain.

To distract myself from the pain, I began to wonder what kind of person had used the office. Not whether or not they were alive, no. That was too depressing. Instead, I tried to guess what kind of person they were. For instance, did they get that original Star Wars poster because they became a fan when they were a kid like I had, or did they watch it in theaters? Or, as the other posters indicated, did he just like to collect advertisements and propaganda? What was that award with the statue of a train in recognition of? Those certificates, were they for graduation? Awards? Something else? When I tried to get a better look at the framed pieces of paper, pain shot up and down my spine.

I decided to turn back to the desk. Well, apparently this guy had some chronic pain. First drawer had a bottle of prescription-grade ibuprofen. The bottle said “Take one every 12 hours,” but I took two. They did nothing.

For fifteen or so minutes, I waited for them to kick in. I also waited for my head to stop spinning like a dreidel. The sound of a landing VTOL didn’t really help matters. At least the telepathic communications and electric motors made the Teeth relatively quiet for a military. Then I heard shouting and stomping.

The door flung open and a man stomped in. “Your rules of engagement don’t allow the taking of prisoners! And you’re only allowed to use weapons provided by the Jason Project! What the hell is going on, Commander Olaf?” He then paused, and asked, “and why is that person still alive?”

A Berserker, possibly the one who had brought me up, said, “Orders. Wish I could kill him, make it nice and violent.” I could almost hear him shrug as he said that.

“Wait…” the man said, “Who ordered you?”

The Berserker, or Commander Olaf as he was apparently known, laughed. “You know who.”

“Capsaicin Umbra,” the strange man said in clear voice that was doing a very good, but not quite convincing, impression of someone who wasn’t panicking.

“What,” Olaf said, with a barely contained chuckle, “do you think she was doing for the past ten years? Do you really think Ulfric or any of the others leaving was an accident? She was weakening our triggers.”

“Olaf,” the Jason Project member said, “You can’t trust Subject One-Four-Eight. She… she…”

“She’s been in my head since before you started your brainwashing,” Olaf said. “Comforting me and my brothers. Even the dead. Even people who we’ve been forced to kill for your stupid little quest to destroy the world or whatever.”

“We aren’t destroying the world,” the Jason Project member said, “we’re saving it.”

In response, Olaf sighed. “You’re lucky that She ordered the retribution to be painless.”

“Wait! No no-!”

There was a crack of a pistol, and the Jason Project member began screaming. “Whoops,” Olaf said. “That round didn’t go where I wanted it to. Too bad, we’re low on ammo and I don’t really want to waste another bullet.” I heard the thump of Olaf walking to the window sill. Eventually, I could see Olaf’s armored body appear in my field of view. He took his helmet off with a hiss and turned around. “Shame I couldn’t do that to you.”

Seeing his face finally confirmed something I had suspected for a while now. “Ulfric’s a Berserker, too, isn’t he?” I asked. “That guy I knew at NIU. He looked a lot like you, except with crazy eyes.” The square, baby face, the gray eyes, the brutally short hair… Physically, he looked exactly like Ulfric. However, there was something more… there about him, if that makes sense. If he ripped off someone’s head, I wouldn’t be wondering if he knew what had done.

“Exactly like me, I’d bet,” Olaf said. “Luckily he’s…” Suddenly his face went extremely pale.

“He’s here, isn’t he?” I asked. Olaf, meanwhile, began to pace nervously. “Hey, Olaf?” I asked. “You ok?”

“Yes,” he said. “But not for long.”

The door smashed open. A large whirlwind of blue NIU hoodie, black cargo pants, and combat boots ran around and smashed Olaf through the window. The figure let Olaf dangle through the window for what had to feel to the victim like an eternity, the newcomer’s other fist raised, ready to smash into Olaf’s face. I couldn’t see either one’s face or even much of Olaf’s body, and I definitely couldn’t make out any psionic conversations. Eventually, the figure I assumed to be Ulfric pulled in Olaf and threw him away one-handed like garbage. Olaf seemed to be thankful nothing worse had happened.

Ulfric, meanwhile, turned around to survey the scene with a look of horror on his face. I must have looked like shit and the Jason Project member was now moaning horribly. “Please…” he whimpered, “help me…”

Ulfric’s look of horror turned to one of disgust when he saw the Jason Project member. He then turned to me and picked me up like a baby. I screamed and groaned as my back moved. Ulfric, with his typical grace, managed to get us out the door without bumping my head. As we walked down the stairs, he said, “Sorry.”

“You seem… better than you were,” I said.

“Still have trouble talking,” he said. “Because of my meds. I’m more alert. More aware.” He paused, then said, “I hate it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I have to live with the stuff I do when I have a ‘good’ day,” he said. “And I realize the stuff I don’t have.”

I suddenly was reminded of what I had seen in Japan. The hallucination of what seemed to be a representation of the Dragon’s Teeth hive mind. Thousands, maybe even millions, of lights, in colors I couldn’t even comprehend surrounding a black hole. And close to the black hole, was a speck of light separate from all the others. “Hey, Ulfric?” I asked. “Are you, you know, connected to the rest of the Dragon’s Teeth?”

He stared at me for a while. “Sort of,” he said. I noticed that as we walked, the various Dragon’s Teeth recoiled from him. Again, I was reminded of the hive mind. He eventually set me down among injured Dragon’s Teeth and began to wander off, leaving me alone in a room full of dying clones and clone medics.

The room turned yellow and things began to swim. I turned around to see Alma looking out over the casualties. “I failed,” she said. “These are good people, compelled to do horrible, horrible things from birth.”

“So,” I said, “I take it the Jason Project weren’t good people?”

“Well,” Alma said, “I might not be the best person to ask. They did kidnap and technically kill me.”

“Technically kill you?” I asked.

“I was the anchor for their entire psionic network,” Alma said, looking out over the injured soldiers. “I think that’s why I survived. I was split among all the clones. All my children. I remember every single one of them and I keep their souls in me.” She shrugged. “I guess it’s not really scientific, but it’s the best way to describe it.”

“Any other non-Dragon’s Teeth souls get sucked up?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Everyone’s. It’s hard. So many people die in pain and rage, and I can feel all of it, the bad bits especially. Someday I’m going to either become numb or insane. Or maybe I’ll finally just stop existing.” She turned to look at me, and I heard a bit of hope in her dead monotone. “It’s physically impossible to last forever, right? I’m not a god?”

For some reason, the idea of her being hopeful that she’d die chilled me to the bone. It also reminded me of how Mubashir believed his powers were a punishment. To avoid thinking about it, I asked, “So, what do you want from me?”

“Not just you,” Alma said. “There are probably only one or two things that only you can do, but you might be able to convince your friends of some things.

“First, I don’t want any more of my children to die. You aren’t fully in control of that, I know, but you and your friends could do enough damage to be… mildly tragic.”

“We don’t seem to be able to do that much,” I said.

“You gave them enough hope to keep fighting,” she said. “And now I have to spend all eternity with people who died killing each other, feeling the pain they felt at the moment of their death.” I looked away uncomfortably. “All you did,” Alma said, her voice breaking with sadness, “is cause a thimbleful more suffering.” She composed herself and then, in her normal monotone, said, “I’d prefer to minimize that. You understand, right?”

“And I’d prefer that the Dragon’s Teeth hadn’t wrecked everything,” I said, “but here we are.”

“Do you think that I didn’t try to stop that?” Alma asked, her skin-crawling monotone becoming more and more icy. “Do you think I like feeling the eternal torment of everyone who died in this useless war?” She looked slightly upwards, as if looking through the building. “Something is coming. It’s going to kill even more people. Stay out of my way or I might get tired of you being alive. Understand?”

I recoiled at the anger. Alma turned back to me. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped. But I’ve worked hard to get to the point where I can have coup.”

“Honestly,” I said, “you can do whatever you want. You have the power.”

“That’s another thing,” she said. “I’m too powerful. I’m losing my connection with the rest of humanity. That’s the reason I went to NIU. The rest of the people I know, except maybe Ulfric, treat me like either a god or a monster.” She paused. “Never mind. The last member of the Jacob Project has been accounted for.”

“They really were terrible, weren’t they?” I asked.

“Most of them, yes,” Alma said. “There were a few exceptions, but we’re getting off-topic. The thing is, I need an anchor.”

“An anchor.”

“Someone, or several someones, to talk to. To listen to. To make sure I’m not becoming too divorced from reality. Who better than some of my former classmates from NIU?”

“And am I the first?” I asked. “I’m flattered.”

“No, I asked Eliza first.” She then said, “There’s also another person who might need help. Mubashir Mubarak. In terms of power, he’s the closest thing to me. He’ll need help eventually, and he might go to you.”

“And why don’t you go help him yourself?” I asked. “You’re probably the only one who can understand him.”

“I already have too much power,” Alma said, “and you want me to cozy up with Mubashir? Besides, I don’t think he’d take too kindly to me just suddenly appearing.”

“Point taken,” I said. “But what about Mayu? And what’s this horrible thing that’s coming?”

“You don’t need to worry,” Alma said, “let me worry about that.”

And then she left and the room went back to normal.

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