Track 1: When the World Comes Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Track 28: King of Wishful Thinking

“Don’t worry,” the SAS operative said, “We’ll find ‘er.” I shook my head vhemenently. “Listen, mate,” the operative said, “she was bleedin’ from ‘er eyes from the field. I’m surprised she’s even still standing.”

“Everything…” I said, “about her is… wrong. Find her.”

Eliza slung her rifle over her shoulder. “Right,” she said, “You need to stop talking.”

“She was trained as a ninja,” John said, “and she knows this castle and the surrounding area inside and out. How long have we got again?”

“Half an hour,” the operative said with a sigh. “You’re right.” He then put a hand to an ear and said, “Package is secure. We need a stretcher over ‘ere. Be advised, Maiden is armed, dangerous, and active in the area. Repeat, Maiden is on site.”

“Right,” Eliza said, “we’ve got to get him moving.”

“Did…” I began.

“Shut up, Nate,” Eliza said.

“Did you find Bai?”

Eliza stared at me. Then she said, “Shut the fuck up, Nate.” The dangerous look on John’s face made me think he seconded that sentiment.

“She’s…” I gasped out, “another… loose end. Just as dangerous. Also, what about… Jen?”

“Jen and company are heading back home,” John said. “I’m going with her. We haven’t found Bai, but I personally don’t give a shit.” He shook his head. “Can’t believe I slept with her.”

“I’m… I’m sorry…” I said.

“Not your fault, Nate,” John said. He looked pointedly at Eliza as if to say who he thought was to blame. “And I can’t entirely blame her. I mean, she had her loyalties, and she knew what was going on. Unlike some people.”

“You fuckin’ what, mate?” Eliza whispered, her voice strained.

“Oh, was I being too subtle? YOU FUCKED EVERYTHING!” John yelled. He took a step forwards. “You and your dumbass of a sister…”

“You,” Eliza said, her face white, her claws popping out and her voice deadly quiet, “leave Char the fuck…”

“Oi!” the SAS operator said, quickly stepping between them and physically pushing them apart. “Stow it.” He glared at them in turns. “You said you were professionals. Act like it.”

John and Eliza glared at each other for a few more seconds. “I’m going to check the route back to the LZ,” John said. “Make sure it’s clear.” He then stalked off, Eliza glaring at him all the way.

Eliza began pacing and muttering under her breath. From what I could tell, it was mostly swearing directed at John. I just sat there awkwardly, listening to gunfire. From what I could tell, it was dropping off. Whether that meant someone was winning or if perimeters had just been secured and defined, I couldn’t tell.

Eventually, several operators, most with M-4 pattern weapons and one with what looked to be an internally silenced G3, came into view. I made a note of that last weapon because I instantly wanted it. Two stood outside the room, aiming down the hallway. Three more began quickly and efficiently unpacking a stretcher. A fifth began checking the medical devices I was hooked up to and a sixth was checking me.

“Either these guys aren’t very devious,” the one checking the medical devices, “or they’re incredibly scary. This stuff is clean.”

“You certain?” Eliza asked. “I don’t want to unhook ‘im and find out that that triggers a bomb or some sort of toxin.”

“He’s got no IVs in him, no EKGs, no wires of any sort,” the operator said. “There shouldn’t be any way to trigger some sort of trap. Unless there’s something you want to tell us?” I thought for a moment, then shook my head.

“Right,” the operator who had been checking me over said. He took out some clippers. “Let’s get him outta here.” Quickly and efficiently, he used the clippers to cut the chains of the handcuffs. I was then removed from the Defender oxygen machine and hooked up to a portable one the SAS medics had set up.

The process of getting me onto the stretcher and off the bed was quick, yet painful. “We’re going to buckle you in, ok?” one of the operators said. “We don’t want you falling off the stretcher.” I nodded. “You’re sure?” the operator asked. I could imagine them doing a similar operation where someone they had rescued freaked out when the restraints came out. To reassure them, I gave an exaggerated thumbs-up. The operators all sighed in relief as they strapped me in.

When I was secure, the operators radioed their status, then began hurrying out. We passed a lot of bodies. When we passed a pile of corpses outside a room with what looked to be a burning server farm, I noticed with a start that one of the bodies was Hiro. The way the bodies were arranged, it was like someone had appeared in the midst of them and sprayed them with automatic weapons fire. It had to be Mayu who did that.

Eventually, we got to the stairs. It was still a great place for someone to ambush us, and it was a lot slower than it should have been because I was on a stretcher. Eventually, we came out to the door. Outside, I could hear jets circling around. The radio crackled. “Orbit is touching down,” a staticy voice said. “Repeat, Orbit is touching down for dustoff. Move fast, we’re still receiving reports of hostiles active in the vicinity.”

The SAS operators and Eliza all exchanged some unspoken signal. Then we burst through the door. Ahead of us, a stealth VTOL designed for troop transport was waiting for us, complete with side bay doors and miniguns. Inside were medics getting ready for my arrival and people manning the miniguns. Its wheels were down, but since the jets were still on they were hovering a few inches off the ground.

One of the medics yelled something at us, but it was impossible to hear him over the whine of the jet engine. Then something hit the sides of the VTOL, making sparks. I thought I heard the sound of an SMG coming from the window above. I turned around just in time to see what the minigun was doing to where the gunner thought the shooter was. Multi-century-old brick was turned to powder and dust.

As soon as we were all buckled in, the VTOL screamed off into the air. Someone had put noise-canceling earphones on my head, but the sound was still ear-splitting. If I hadn’t been strapped in, I would have been thrown around wildly.

“So,” Eliza said, her voice crackling over the radio in the helmet, “I don’t think we’ve told you, Nate, but we’re going to NIU.”

I considered responding, but they hadn’t given me a mic. Trying to yell above the noise was going to be like trying to stop a tsunami using only my pinky, and that was pretending my lungs were working.

Eliza, correctly realizing the situation, continued. “I know you can’t talk, so I’m going to tell you as much as I possibly can. We have no bases in country that the Japanese wouldn’t poke their noses into. We also need to keep this quiet. Not sure if you know the situation, but the world’s gone to shite. The Dragon’s Teeth are fucking everyone up, and the last thing ‘Er Majesty wants is to piss off a potential ally against them. We’ll need to disappear after this, as well as get you healed up. NIU’s a brilliant place for both those things.”

I nodded. I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I’d get there, but at least I’d be safe. I closed my eyes. For now, my fight was over. Now it was time to take a well-earned nap.

 

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Ok, some bad news. I am unable to keep up with weekly writing. Between my day job, a family emergency, other responsibilities, and editing volume 1, I have no time to keep up with NIU weekly updates. I could quit my job or stop writing the book, but that leaves me with no money (and in one case, irate parents.) The other two options are either to delay future story posts until I have a buffer again (minimum is five) or let a dip in quality and words per chapter occur. I don’t think either option is a good one, but the first one is, in my opinion, significantly better. Please understand.

Track 26: Giving Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I believe him,” Bai said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eliza?” Bai asked. “You’re here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which was nothing,” Hiro said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Track 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 7: Trip Around It

“Oi, Nate,” Eliza said as we drove to the nearest city, “what’cha readin’?”

I looked up. “It’s PP99.  It’s about this weird Psionic phenomena that happened in 1999. It came out last year because something similar happened.” We were driving down the road to the nearest city. I was surprised because Eliza almost never talked while driving.  I think it was a consequence of how seriously Eliza took guard duty, her earlier bad experiences with driving, and the fact that we were driving her sister’s hundred-thousand dollar car. “You know how Psionic energy exists on a spectrum that’s parallel to electromagnetic energy?”

“Yeah,” Eliza said. “Just like that theoretical spectrum that Jumpers use to jump.” I noticed that her eyes rarely focused on just one thing and her ears were constantly rotating. It was weird how she was simultaneously relaxed and alert.

“Didn’t know about that one,” I said. “Where did you hear that?”

“Jen,” Eliza said. That made sense. Before Mayu, Jenifer Kagemoto was the only Jumper we had access to. “At least, at first. Then I Googled, and got a bunch of academic journals that said the same thing, just like complete chunguses.”

“Well,” I said, “I will have to check that out. Anyway, apparently in 1999, the background level of background Psionic energy just spiked.”

“So it doubled?” Eliza asked. “Like, just randomly?”

“You got the ‘just randomly’ part,” I said. “But…” I struggled to remember the exact phrase. I could tell that if Eliza wasn’t on guard mode, she would have turned to cock her head at me in curiosity. “The book says that the electromagnetic spectrum equivalent is like going to sleep in a place with abnormally low background radiation to waking up in the core of a nuclear reactor that’s in the process of melting down.”

“And… and where did this happen again?” Eliza asked, understandably worried.

“It was a worldwide phenomenon,” I said. “The interesting thing is how quickly people ignored it. This guy was a scientist studying it, and he had this anecdote about how quickly it was forgotten. This was in ninety-nine, and apparently there were only fifty places you could go to even measure ambient Psionic levels. He was being interviewed by someone at a cable news channel, and when they asked what all this meant. The author had no clue, so the anchor just listed a bunch of scenarios. Each and every time, the author either said he had no clue or dismissed it outright. Eventually, the anchor just got bored.”

“Was it an American one?” Eliza asked with a good deal of wide-eyed faux-innocence.

“Not sure,” I said, after failing to find a light-hearted way of reminding her about the existence of things like the Daily Mail or the Sun. “But he talked a lot about how most people seemed to lose interest. He was planning on releasing the book two years ago, but then there was another spike.”

“Does ‘e know about the Dragon’s Teeth?” Eliza asked.

“Ironically,” I said, “he did theorize that this new spike could be caused by a massive influx of new Psychics. He just never once mentions the possibility of an army of Psychic clones.”

“Oo’s the author?” Eliza asked.

“Doctor James Breyer,” I said.

“I’ll ‘ave to check ‘im out,” Eliza said. “Always loved non-fiction. Especially the sciencey stuff.”

“So, what about you?” I asked.  “You read anything good?”

We were almost to the city. The trees, farms, and mountain roads had slowly turned into houses and small buildings. Now and then, we’d occasionally see areas that were more urban. If the architecture was different, I could almost think I was back home in New England. The only problem was it made Eliza even less focused on me.

“Oh, what?” she asked, somewhat distractedly. “Oh, yeah. Things I’m readin’. Well, this science bloke I follow’s been doin’ a lot of posts about the incomin’ spaceship. That distress signal it sent?”

“I remember John talking about it a bit,” I said. “I’m just not sure if I remember the gist. Something about it trying to translate its message and access the internet, I guess?” I paused. “Please tell me someone didn’t give it access to the internet.”

“God, no!” Eliza said. “As the guy said, ‘Everybody there has watched Terminator.’ You’d gotta be a complete idiot to do that.” She didn’t sound too convinced, though. “Anyway, they’ve been watching the ship, and it’s moving faster than they thought. The poor bastards break down from time to time, so we’ve no clue when to put the kettle on, so to speak.”

As Eliza pulled us into a parking space, I said, “Is it just me, or do I find the fact we’re being visited by an alien race extremely disturbing?”

“Suppose so,” Eliza said, “but it’d be kinda funny if we spent all our time actin’ like this place’s the most important place in the universe, then some… I dunno, feathered avian bastards just casually blow the entire planet up, wouldn’t it? Anyway, I think this is the place.”

“You know,” I said, as she parallel-parked outside a café, “you have a sick sense of humor.”

“Yeah,” Eliza said, turning off the engine and putting the car into park, “but it’s better’n bein’ mental, innit?”

“Yeah,” I said as we got out, “you may have a point.”

After I managed to get through enough Japanese to order our drinks and pastries, I sat down across from Eliza. The table itself was near enough to the window to see out, but at sort of an angle so that a shooter would have a terrible angle. “You didn’t tell me that this was a maid café,” I said nonchalantly.

“It isn’t a maid café,” Eliza said, an innocent expression on her face. “There’s also butlers.”

I tried to look stern. Then I broke into giggles. Eliza quickly joined in. “So,” I finally asked, “did you come here for the eye candy or to test me for secret fetishes?”

Eliza suddenly sobered up. “Actually…” she said, “I came ‘ere mostly ‘cause I wanted to get away from everyone else at the… at the room, y’know?”

“We’re going to be staying here a while aren’t we?” I asked.

Eliza nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “Charlotte just says she wants to know what’s going to happen with Mayu an’ all, but if she doesn’t like what’s gonna happen to ‘er, well…” She trailed off, then looked at my face. “Nate?” she asked. “Is something wrong?”

I tried to keep my tone casual. “The maid I took my order from? She took a phone call recently. After that, she’s been staring at us, then at the road.” My Japanese course last semester might not have sunk in, but my counter-surveillance course had.

“D’you think it could be because…” Eliza said, pointing to her ears. Then she said, “No… she’d have to’ve been staring before the phone call for me to believe that.”

Pretending to focus on Eliza, I watched the maid in question duck back into the kitchen. She came back out with a butler. The butler had a tray with food and drinks on it. They would their way through the tables that were full of people. Despite my semester of Japanese, the only thing I was able to make out was “Bon appetite!”

“Thanks,” Eliza said. “But can we get this to go?”

Instantly, the maid and butler began hurriedly trying to convince us to stay. I suddenly realized why they weren’t making sense: they were speaking in English and butchering it so badly I couldn’t even recognize what they were saying. Eventually, I could make out that they were saying something along the lines of, “Your friend is coming!”

“Our… our friend?” I asked.

“Hai!” the maid said. “Yes! Your friendu is coming! Pureasu be patient!”

“And… which friend is this?” Eliza asked. “We have so many friends, especially in Japan.”

Our servers picked up on Eliza’s sarcasm and became even more flustered. “Kagemoto Jennifer-sama is your honored friend!” the butler said, bowing deeply. “She is coming! Pureasu wait for her!”

Jennifer Kagemoto. I never knew her reach extended outside of Massachusetts. That… was not what I wanted. How the fucking hell had she managed to track us? From the expression on Eliza’s face, I could tell she was wondering the same thing. Then horrific realization dawned on her face.

“We’ll wait for her,” I told our servers. They bowed and thanked us, then scurried their way back to the kitchen. I turned back to Eliza. “Do you have an idea how she managed to find out where we are?”

“Yes,” Eliza said. “When we parked in her bloody garage for ‘er bloody New Year’s party. She coulda gotten one of ‘er minions to get a GPS tracker on the Maybach. If she got it hooked up to an electrical cable, it could run as long as the car.”

“Surely…” I said, checking to make sure my Berretta and Sig were with me and I hadn’t forgotten them, “surely you had somebody look at the engine. How did they…” I didn’t think I’d need either of them, but with Jennifer I wasn’t confident I wouldn’t.

“I don’t know,” Eliza said, “but I’m going to bloody rip that shit apart when we get back.” She looked up. “‘Eads up, I think that’s ‘er.”

I looked out the window. Right behind the Maybach, a blue Cadillac Escalade was pulling in. When it was fully parked, four people got out. The two of them in the front were Asian, one a woman with a burned face, the other a burly man who was extremely intimidating except for what must have been a terrible case of acne in his youth. The two in the rear seemed less professional. The male was obviously black, the female could have been one of any number of ethnicities or a mix. They all wore suits and sunglasses.

The four scanned the area for a few moments. Finally, as if from some signal, three doors closed in unison. Simultaneously, the woman in the rear helped out someone from the rear seat while her fellow bodyguards watched for danger.

The person who emerged from the Escalade was a graceful woman about the same age as Eliza and I. She wore a blue Patriots hat, tightly-fitting Red Sox Matsuzaka shirt, dark blue jeans, and black thigh-high boots. Her gold eyes confidently surveyed her surroundings, pausing only to smile at us. Yup, I thought to myself, that’s Jennifer, all right.

“So,” Eliza said casually as the two females in Jennifer’s retinue followed her inside, “at least half of ‘er goons are professionals. D’you think she’s got any Paras?”

“She leads a team of supervillains,” I said. “Those guys are probably a mix of inventors and serious Paras. Those two that look like amateurs? There’s gotta be a reason she keeps them around.”

“Fuckin’ ‘ell…” Charlotte said. “Well, let’s just see what she wants.”

As Eliza said this, the door opened and Jennifer and her two female bodyguards walked in. The woman with the burned face leaned against the wall, gaining a commanding view of the entire café. She appeared perfectly still, but I could tell she was calmly scanning the room. The other woman (or maybe girl would be more appropriate, something about her screamed “teenager” to me) was taking in the entire room like she had never seen anything like this before.

“Lydia,” Jennifer said as she sat down between Eliza and me, her cold voice warming with amusement, “don’t gawp.”

“Sorry, Jen,” Lydia said, smiling awkwardly. “I’ll get back to… you know.” She then straightened up and tried her best to be intimidating. I didn’t need the theatrics. If she was on first-name terms with Jen, the chances were pretty high that she was on Jen’s supervillain squad.

Jen, meanwhile turned to us. “Nathan! Eliza!” she said to each of us, giving her predatory smile. “So nice to see you two! I had no idea you’d be here.”

“I’m not sure I buy that,” Eliza said. “Where’d you put the bloody tracker?”

“Really?” Jen said. “I’m surprised. And hurt. What would ever make you think such a thing of me?”

Eliza and I both raised our eyebrows in unison. “Weren’t you the one ‘oo pretty much bragged you were the slipperiest bastard I’d ever miss?”

“Sadly,” Jennifer said, “I’m definitely my father’s daughter and I have the DNA tests to prove it. But yes, I am slippery. And there is a bug in the steering column.”

“Just one?” I asked.

Jen laughed. “I’ll let you find that out for yourself,” she said. “It’ll be good for you and amusing for me. Lydia and Andrew made and placed them, so you might have to strip it down to the bolts. Hell, you may even have to dissect the bolts themselves.”

Eliza clutched her head in her hands and groaned at this news. I turned to Jennifer and asked, “So, may I ask why we’re meeting here? We were previously in Boston, you had ample opportunity to meet us there.”

“To be fair,” Jennifer said, “you didn’t seem to want anything to do with me.”

“That isn’t stopping you now,” Eliza said rather pointedly.

“Well,” Jennifer said, “Lydia happened to note that you were nearby. When I checked, your car seemed to have stopped in what I first thought to be the middle of nowhere. I then did some digging of local news, and found that you were staying at what appeared to be the base of operations for a British military search and rescue training exercise. We also noticed that several rental vehicles had parked there, most loaned out to fellow foreigners. This, understandably, has piqued my interest.”

“And you decided to just up and fly over ‘ere?” Eliza asked.

“No.” Jennifer said.

“Trust me,” I said, “this is not the kind of thing you want to get involved in. Hell, I’m busy trying to get out.”

Instantly, I realized my mistake. “Really?” Jennifer said brightly. “I can help with that, if you’re interested.”

“No thanks,” I said. “It’s… basically, it was kind of a treasure hunt, except no one seems to want it. We found the treasure, now people are arguing about what to do with it. We’re just hoping we can get permission to go home sooner rather than later. How about you?”

“Mmm.” Jen said. “My business here is… a bit more personal. My brother’s killers might have come from here and I’m looking to have a talk with them.”

“Well…” I said, “I guess everyone needs closure. I’d offer to help, but I kind of want to be able to come back here someday.”

Jen nodded. “Of course. In the meantime, let me show you some interesting spots. That is, assuming you have some free time?”

Eliza and I looked at each other. Finally, Eliza said, “I guess. Not like we’ve got anything else to do.”

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Track of the Day

Track 6: Nightmares

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

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

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

“Jeong!” I yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you chased after them,” I said.

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

“Not denying that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God, yes,” Eliza said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you here?” Bai asked.

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

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

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

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

 

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