Track 7: They Have Marched 1,000 Miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cover story?” I suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Track 6: In the Middle of the Night

“I swear,” Eliza said for the seventh time as we trundled along in a Bearcat to the airfield, the sound of helicopters overhead, “I meant to tell you but I was freaked out that they were listening in! I mean, when Krieger butted in on my conversation with Father…”

I listened politely. Again. So did Krieger and the CampSec officers. “Eliza,” I said for the seventh time, “it’s ok.”

“I should have told you,” Eliza said, “but…”

“You told me eventually,” I said. Then I remembered something. “Actually, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“What?” Eliza asked.

“Um, you know that person you had me protect?” I asked.

“Oh good God, the little psycho didn’t contact you, did she?”

“No,” I said, “I just gave a friend a heads-up that she’s coming to see someone.”

Eliza sighed. “Please tell me that…”

“I didn’t tell him about why,” I said. “But he can pass it on to the people who…”

“Oh fuckin’ Christ, Nate,” she said. “D’you really think that… that…” she sputtered, shifting from glaring angrily at me to looking at Krieger suspiciously.

“It’s a lot better than them not realizing she’s coming,” I said. “I mean, can you imagine what happens if she gets…”

“Am I right in thinking that you are talking about Mubashir, Agent Hicks and this mysterious woman from Japan?” Krieger asked.

“You’d be right in thinkin’ we aren’t talking to you,” Eliza said. She then sighed and muttered, “Suppose they’d find out ‘bout Moob sooner or later. Anyway, ‘ow’s this handoff gonna go?”

“Very simple,” Krieger said. “We drive you two to the airfield, your dad picks you lot up, and maybe I have a little chat with him.”

“About what?” I asked.

“Well,” Krieger said, “I’d like to be left alone, obviously. I’d prefer not to have a lot a bunch of gobshites deciding to kill my students. If he can help with that, I’d be very happy. Also, there’s some things I want to ask him about this island. Things that the Blackmoor-Wards specialize in.”

“What do you think the Blackmoor-Wards specialize in?” I asked. “Because you’ve got a pretty good knowledge of spy stuff.”

“There’s stuff on this island,” Krieger said, “that just isn’t right. Not natural, I mean, and from what I can tell, it was a little weird here before Howell ever stepped foot on this island.”

I was about to say how I thought that was stupid. Then I realized that this was an island that, despite appearing insignificant geographically, strategically, and politically, had been somehow important enough for the Japanese to occupy during WWII and the US to expend enough shells and bombs to crater the landscape. During Hell Semester, I had made use of these craters frequently, as well as been bedeviled by them. To top it off, I had even heard stories of people accidentally setting off unexploded ordnance. That battle had occurred in the early forties, and NIU had been founded in the eighties. I closed my mouth.

“If there is something ‘ere,” Eliza said, “Father won’t tell you.”

“Well, I’m sure your dad has his-“ Krieger began.

“Father,” Eliza corrected. Her eyes misted up a bit. “Me dad died a while ago.” She then continued on, more annoyed. “Also, apparently, ‘e won’t tell me or Char what’s up with this bloody island either.” That was disturbing. He had told Eliza and Charlotte some highly sensitive information in the past. Like that they’d broken UNIX codes and I was working for them.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Krieger said.

Suddenly, a voice crackled over the radio on Krieger’s shoulder. “‘Allo, boss,” a staticky voice with a French accent said, “are you there, over?”

“Yeah,” Krieger said. “I copy. What is it, Hollande?”

“Kowaleski and Obiozor are reporting some strange heat signatures around the airfield and Kassem is reporting something triggering the pressure sensors. Should we abort?”

“No!” Krieger almost shouted. Then he calmed down. “I mean, we’ve got a buncha bloody Brits thinking of wiping us off the face of the Earth over these two. Tell them we’ve got some guests and we need to do the swap a lot faster than we were planning. Maybe send a couple Bearcats to investigate. Krieger out.”

“Got it, boss.” As the French CampSec officer signed off, I could hear the whine of jet engines. The Bearcat stopped for a moment, I heard the sound of a metal grate open, we drove forwards a short ways, then we stopped again.

“Right,” Krieger said, getting up. “Here’s our stop. Oh, before I forget.” He reached under his seat and pulled out a bag. “Your weapons.”

As Krieger and the CampSec guards left the Bearcat, Eliza and I opened the bag. Inside was a Berretta 92 Inox, a two-tone SIG-Sauer P229, a chrome CZ-75, holsters for all the pistols, a G3KA4 modified with rails, vertical foregrip, EOTech hybrid sight, and several magazines for each weapon.  “Holy shit,” I said, quickly moving to get my holsters on my belt and my pistols in my holsters, “I forgot I kept my G3 here.”

“You’ll notice,” Eliza said, smacking a magazine into her pistol and chambering a round, “that you have three different guns, one of ‘em bloody ‘uge, and I’ve only got one pistol.”

“You realize,” I said, “that you’re the one who always carries around a FAL, right?” I grabbed a G3 mag, realized I couldn’t put it in my pants pocket, so I shoved it in my sweater. I was only able to fit three in each, plus one in the gun. That was three G3 mags I couldn’t carry with me. I sighed, and slung it over my shoulder by its broken strap. Then I headed outside to wait with Eliza.

When I got out, I saw we were at the airfield. Lights were illuminating the approach as well as the landing strip and hangars. Parked outside the gate to the airstrip were two Bearcats disgorging heavily armed CampSec troops. A third Bearcat was slowly driving off across the moonscape of overgrown craters, a floodlight on its turret dissolving the night like acid. Beyond that moonscape was the forest. Not even the floodlights made a dent in it

Surrounding the airfield was a tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire and reinforced with sandbags and Jersey barriers. Groups of four patrolled, the interior and there were a series of towers with either floodlights, heavy machineguns, or snipers. I noticed that the ones with floodlights weren’t manned.

“OI, NATE!” I turned around. Despite Eliza yelling, she was being drowned out. The sound of the jet engine was much closer. She was standing near Krieger and surrounded by the CampSec that had been on the Bearcat. “DID YOU LOAD YOUR…”

The jet noises were getting so loud my ear drums felt like they could implode any second. I looked up. Hovering above us and slowly descending was what looked like a private jet modified with VTOL capability. Assuming Eliza wanted me to load my pistols, I did so.

When I looked up again, the VTOL had descended dramatically. The distinctive angel wing pattern of flares lit up the night and the smoke trail of a rocket had whisked past the plane, barely missing it. Meanwhile, many were flinging themselves to the floor and shouting for others to do the same.

Of course, I didn’t realize any of that at the time. I just stared at the plane gormlessly. It wasn’t until a familiar bluish-white light flashed behind me with the accompanying heat surge that I realized what was going on. We were under attack, most likely by the Dragon’s Teeth, and they’d brought one of their bouncy balls of plasma death.

Before I could get down, something grabbed me and forced some sort of cloth to my face. I instinctively held my breath, but still got a whiff of whatever it was coated with and began to feel woozy. As I struggled, I saw a CampSec officer who had been lying near me get up and open fire. I noticed that she was using her scope (which appeared to be a thermal one) and yelling something into her throat mic. Her fire was also very calm. Two shots to my right, then she shifted her aim and fired one to my left. Each set caused a man in futuristic armor to fizzle into existence and fall down, bleeding. I recognized the uniforms. They were Ninja, Dragon’s Teeth units that could literally go invisible. They have shimmery outlines if you shine a light on them and are paying attention, but the best way to spot them is to use thermal imaging. That must have been what the bulky scope on the CampSec guard’s SCAR-H was.

She was aiming for the one holding me when suddenly her head was sliced off mid-neck. Steam smoked off.

Meanwhile, I had drew my P229 from the holster on my left hip, pushed it against where I thought the head of the Ninja was, and pulled the trigger. The Ninja shuddered, tightening his grip temporarily, then collapsed. I followed a second later as leads shot out from an invisible point and hit me in the chest. There was a crackling noise and I blacked out.

I came to, I’m not sure how long, Eliza throwing me over her shoulders like a sack of potatoes and fucking booking it to the now-landed VTOL, Krieger yelling encouragement. Or at least running as fast as she could with a hundred and eighty pounds of dead weight on her back.

I took the opportunity to look around and saw that things were kind of fucked. Several of the watch towers were burning and sagging from the intense head of the Dragon’s Teeth plasma weaponry. Streams of tracer fire raked the cratered area of the field around the airstrip and the forest. Then a rocket arced up from the ground back towards the place in the sky the deluge of gunfire was coming from.

I then had the frustrating experience of being able to feel Eliza talk, but not be able to make out the words. I then suddenly realized I couldn’t hear anything. I could feel Eliza speak, I could feel the backwash of the choppers, but I literally couldn’t hear anything except an annoying ringing in my ears. I guess shooting off one of my pistols had finally deafened me.

Then there was a resounding thump-thump-thump as rockets streamed from the sky onto the ground below. A Hind and a Blackhawk helicopter sporting glow-in-the-dark NIU logos flew directly over our heads, both strafing the ground.

Soon we reached the VTOL. A group of people dressed in fatigues and carrying M4 clones ushered Eliza up the ramp. Once inside, she collapsed.

I rolled off her. “Eliza,” I said, somewhat loudly in case she was deafened, “What you did was amazing. Thank you.” Then I lapsed into unconsciousness.

 

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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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