Track 31: In the town known as Worcester, MA

For what seemed to be several hours but was probably not even a half an hour, I watched the incoming stream of soldiers trying to get into the factory. The vehicles were still holding the line, but barely.

“Where the fuck are all these people coming from?” I muttered under my breath.

I heard a knock on the door. On the camera, it revealed it to be Eliza. “I’m kind of locked down at the moment,” I said into the intercom. I made sure it was only directed into the speaker outside the door to the security room.

“Good,” Eliza said back into the intercom. “That’s where you need to be. I take it yer ready to push the button?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I am.”

“I like it even less than you do,” Eliza said, “but those tanks won’t ‘old forever. Also, I’m worried about the basement. Buncha pipes and conduits leadin’ in, right?”

“Create a detail for that if you want,” I said, “but I’m not too worried about that. We’ve got bigger problems than-”

There was a roar that reminded me of one of my last years in high school. Behind my school, they had been building a replacement for my old crappy school and part of that process involved breaking ground using explosives. Those explosives, up until recently, had been the second-most powerful weapons I had experienced. Only the Teeth’s plasma weaponry had impressed me more than the humble excavation tool that had caused that tarp behind my school to lift up, propelled by literal tons of dirt and rock.

This sound, however, was like someone had dropped dozens of bombs hundreds of times more powerful in rapid succession. The shock wave was so intense that it felt like my heart would burst and I was nearly thrown out of my chair. Ears ringing, I turned back to the monitor to check what had happened.

The exterior cameras facing the areas the tanks had been defending were useless. Either they were displaying an error message, or they were showing an odd swirling gray mist. Upon looking on the ones viewing the rooms where the soldiers were being triaged, I learned it was dust. Dust that was still pouring in, causing everyone who breathed it in to break down and cough. Dust that was sticking to clothes and skin. I wondered what it was from, then realized with horror: it was from the buildings outside the factory that, along with the tanks, had been blocking the advance of the Dragon’s Teeth.

I slammed the button to the intercom for a general announcement. “GET INSIDE!” I yelled. “EVERYONE, GET INSIDE NOW!”

Then, one of the Dragon’s Teeth planes must have flown too low, because all the dust was blown away. There, advancing over rubble that used to be several blocks of city street and methodically killing US Armed Forces stragglers, were what had to be Dragon’s Teeth soldiers. They seemed to be a new type, with a different kind of armor and were moving along in groups of three, with one in front holding a riot shield and two in back using the one in front as cover.

I frowned. The weapons they were holding didn’t seem to be the typical Pilum bullpup assault rifle or Gladius SMG used by the mainline Legionnaires. I zoomed in. “The bastards…” I muttered as I saw some reach into a hastily restored Sherman tank to remove a crew member.

Some of the ones hiding behind the riot shields were carrying M249s, M240s, or M60s. But most were carrying Maccabees. It was difficult, but I could tell by the fact that the M4-like rifles were oddly thick around the magazines and ambidextrous AK-style charging handles. The ones with the shields were either carrying Maccabees or Ballpeens with flat butt plates that had slings around their shoulders.

They’re using my weapons, I thought in shock. The bastards are in my country, killing my fellow citizens with weapons I made.

Between the shock of seeing my weapons in the hands of the enemy and disorientation from the bomb, I was too stunned to do anything. I watched as the few remaining US soldiers outside the factory capable of doing anything started to fire at the advancing Teeth. Their fire did very little, with many bullets bouncing off the ballistic shields and sometimes even the helmets of the advancing Teeth. Many more shots missed. It was a miracle, in my opinion, that any of the US soldiers had hit them.

The Dragon’s Teeth, meanwhile, were moving with inhuman speed and returning fire with equally impressive accuracy. In the rare circumstances that one of them was dropped by the fire from the US soldiers, his buddies would step over his body and continue onwards. I suddenly realized that the soldiers still outside the factory were screwed, and the Dragon’s Teeth were entering optimum range. I pushed the button.

The doors slammed shut. A soldier had been trying to get through the pedestrian entrance and was crushed by the iron blast door. Their buddy just ahead turned around and began screaming causing other soldiers to turn around. On the vehicle entrance, some soldiers had been dragging in wounded. Some were still outside, and began banging on the door only to be cut down by Dragon’s Teeth fire or to get down. I was unsure which. One soldier who had been dragged by his or her fellows (the body armor most of them were wearing and shitty image quality made telling gender hard) had their legs caught by the falling door. The people dragging the wounded soldier in were now trying to free them.

Meanwhile, the auto-turrets had come up. The perimeter around the doors had mostly contracted into the turret’s minimum range. Mostly. A few soldiers outside that small bubble were instantly chewed up by the dumb devices.

Luckily, the Dragon’s Teeth took the brunt of the robotic wrath. A short burst into Dragon’s Teeth clone with a riot shield would seemingly penetrate the shield, its wielder, and, if the burst was long enough, the armor of the other two Teeth in the triad.

I looked out into the hellish landscape outside the factory that I had helped to create in several ways. Buried, maimed, and dead littered all the debris from the bombs. The ringing in my ears from the bombs was slowly dying away and I could hear footsteps and voices outside the door of the security room as people began running to firing positions inside the factory walls. In the cameras looking inside the factory, I could see soldiers and gangsters running to firing positions, checking for masks, or trying to find a place to put the dead and wounded so they at least wouldn’t get trampled. Thanks to what I’m convinced was a Deet carpet-bombing, I think there were a few more potential murder holes than there would have been otherwise.

I realized that the explosion had shaken a huge amount of dust loose from the tiles above me. I brushed myself off, which irritated my burned skin. I then began to wonder what else I was missing. My chest was still aching from the blasts, and I wondered how anyone was still moving.

Due to a combination of finally being able to catch my breath and the ringing in my ears dying down, I finally noticed that some of the thumping was coming from the door to my security room. I looked through the camera just in time to see Captain Castle get slammed against the wall by Eliza.

“Hey, Eric,” I said into the intercom, “Eliza’s having a dispute with one of our guests. Can I have some assistance here?” There was another thump as Castle slammed Eliza back into the door to the security room, and another when he headbutted her. Seeing as there was no way anyone would have been able to make out that what with the explosions and gunfire, I added, “Can you please hurry?”

Castle got Eliza into a headlock somehow, then hammered on the button. “Jacobs, you piece of shit!” he yelled. “Open the fucking gate or I break her GAH!”

Eliza had simultaneously bit Castle’s arm and brought her foot down on the Captain’s shin, causing it to bend where a human leg definitely should not be bending. She then ripped out of his grasp and threw him back against the door with a thud.

At that point, I genuinely expected him to go down. Instead, from the side I could see, three bone claws popped out of his hand and he somehow lunged towards Eliza. In response, Eliza popped her own claws. Shit, I thought. He’s a Lupine as well. This will only end badly.

There was a brief flurry of violence in which I couldn’t see anything. I could see the results. Both combatants had been flung back against their respective walls, Eliza bleeding from the face and Castle clutching his stomach with one hand. Eliza yelled something, but I could barely make out a sound through the reinforced wall and the gunfire.

Castle ignored her and took a step forwards. Then, from the blurry camera feed, I saw him stumble back and I could hear several gunshots striking metal. Whoever was firing at him quickly shifted aim and the result was a massive red hole in his forehead.

Eliza slumped to the ground as Doc and Eric came into view. Eric went over to Eliza while Doc kept his gun trained on Castle’s corpse. Satisfied that the threat was over, I wheeled to the door and began the process of opening it. When it opened, something squishy fell on my legs. It was Captain Castle’s head. I looked down. His stomach was ripped to shreds.

“I’m sorry, Nate,” Eliza said, her eyes filled with tears. Well, eye. One of them was completely gouged out from Castle’s swipe. “I tried to get ‘im to reason wi’ me an’ then ‘e took a swing an’ things just snowballed. I didn’t…! I didn’t mean…!”

I knew. It wasn’t her fault. Two Lupines, one trying to enter the room where the person who had killed all his men was sitting, the other, who wanted to defend said person in the room. I personally was surprised that Doc had arrived in time to end the fight.

The Monk, Ray-Gun and Cross had joined me, Eliza, Eric and Doc. I only barely noticed them. “We have to do something,” I said. “We have to hide the body. How…?”

Cross took  off his jacket and threw it over Castle’s head. “We’re putting bodies out in the back. Most people aren’t back there anyway. Plus he’s just one more body. Easiest stiff disposal job I ever did. You and Eliza just go back in there. Is there a cleaning cupboard?” He then looked down the hall. “There it is. You got a key?”

“It’s got a number pad,” I said. “Four, five, seven, nine.”

“Got it,” Cross said. “We’ll fix this shit up. You and Eliza stay in there.”

Once Eliza was shepherded into the room, I turned my attention back to monitoring the hell I had created.

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Track 27: Twilight’s Last Gleaming

“How long before they get here?” I asked.

Jen was set down on a comfy piece of floor. “I have no idea. It could be a few weeks. It could be a few hours. It all depends on how long the guard can hold out.” She paused, looking like she was about to burst into tears. Then she asked hopefully, “Do you think there will be reinforcements? I haven’t heard anything in days.”

I then realized that I hadn’t heard anything from beyond Massachusetts in days. “I…” I began.

Eric cut me off. “I am sure everything will be all right,” he said. “There is no way they have enough firepower. They have taken on China, the EU, Russia, India, and much of the Middle East. They have to break.”

Jen glared at Eric. “I know when I’m being lied to,” she said. “You aren’t telling me the whole story.”

“We haven’t heard from the Canadians in days,” I said.

“I have,” Eric admitted. “We got a report from NIU observers. They dropped two plasma bombs on the Canucks advancing on us, but the Canadians seem to be still advancing.”

Most people made noises of surprise, but Eliza laughed. “Those mad bastards! It was the same in the first World War, those mad men would charge inna clouds of mustard gas and machinegun nests an’ win.”

“What’s the likelihood of them winning now?” Cross asked.

“Zero,” she said. “But hopefully it either makes those motherless freaks think twice ‘bout moving farther or teaches the Canucks something useful about fighting them.”

“So I came back just to watch them roll over everything?” Cross asked. “When the hell are we going to stand and fight?” He then walked over and kicked a wall. I heard a crack that was probably his toe. “FUCK!”

“Not everything,” I said. “We’re the speed bump.”

“I don’t want New York to be a speed bump!”  Cross yelled.

“Well too late,” Jen said. “From what I heard, it already was, and it wasn’t as good a speed bump as Boston.”

“Oi,” Eliza said, “I’ll fuckin’ cut you gibbons if you make it a stupid regional thing, swear on me mum.”

“But there are things we can do,” I said. “Things that don’t involve strapping C4 to ourselves and throwing ourselves under a Charon.”

“Please don’t joke about that,” Jen said.

“For instance,” I went on, “there’s still a few rifles. We have…”

“No there aren’t,” Eliza said. “What weapons you ‘aven’t given to our guests and random reprobates amounts to about five bloody Mjolnirs and four NFs. There’s some ammo, but it’ll run out pretty quickly, splittin’ it up among all of us.”

“We made thousands of them,” I said. “We can’t have sold all.”

“You did,” Jen said. “My contacts at the BPD were complaining because your waiting list was backed up for decades and they’d wanted to keep those toys you made for themselves.”

“They are quite good,” Eric said in agreement. “Shame that they sold so quickly.”

I thought of these guns, all distributed to police departments across the country and a few around the world. Apart from maybe my very, very sketchy first customer, I had reason to believe that not a single military or counter-terror unit had come into possession of my products and I had no intention of selling on the civilian market. All those firearms, in the hands of people with no prayer of using them effectively. I hadn’t even managed to get it adopted by the FBI.

“Hey,” I asked, “Did the Chinese manage to put their version of the Maccabee into production?”

“I think they’d just gotten the assembly rolling,” Jen said. “The problem was, the province it was located in was the first to be hit.”

“Maybe they’ve developed a taste for your guns,” John said. “I remember you saying something about them trying to get you.”

“There were other reasons,” I said. “Anyway, let’s get everyone settled.” I then wheeled around to the garage, desperately trying not to think about the incoming wave of Teeth.

The inspection didn’t reveal anything good. We couldn’t fit the seventy assorted gangsters, mostly Kagemoto grunts, but some from other gangs, for any real length of time without running into food problems. We also had only enough ammo for a day of fighting at most, and no weapons designed to take down the various nasty vehicles they had. Still, I wasn’t going to sit down.

We were preparing the defenses, with me talking to Jen’s pet code geeks, Lydia and Andrew, about ways to improve the automated defense systems, when someone turned on a radio.

For a moment, there was static. Then, with AM quality, a soft-spoken voice came over the speaker. “My name,” he said, “Is Brigadier General James Connolly of the US Marines. From what I can tell, I am the highest ranking US officer left alive and at liberty.”

By that point, everyone in the room had stopped talking. From outside, I could hear trucks drive by, broadcasting the message and people, possibly soldiers, shouting something. I wondered if everyone in what remained of the US was listening.

“I am broadcasting on several shortwave and local radio channels,” General Connolly continued, his voice shaking. “The Canadian forces sent to assist my position have been pushed back. This is not because they are cowards, it is because that they were asked to do the impossible. They have done the impossible three times now, and I cannot in good conscience ask them to do it a fourth.”

At this there was a murmur of shock. Everyone, even me, had somehow believed that this would not be the end. That the Canadians would come and save us, or the Latin-American coalition.

“I am broadcasting to all who can hear me,” the General continued, “so that those who still remain under my care can attain an honest assessment of the situation and those out in the rest of the world will know of what in all likelihood will be our last stand.

“In July, the United States had over three hundred million people living in it, spread out over three point eight million square miles. For those outside my country, that’s roughly nine point eight million square kilometers. Worcester County, where I have made my base, was not seen as a significant part of it in any sense. Around eight hundred thousand people living in four thousand square kilometers.

“Now, we of the US are facing our darkest hour. Some of you may not know the extent to which this military has failed its people. We have no planes. Only a handful of artillery and vehicles remain. If they let us live, we will run out of food and water within a few weeks.

“Even more egregious, a week before the first major Dragon’s Teeth push into China, they managed to capture our nuclear weapons and we did not inform you. We have reason to believe that all thermonuclear devices and most other chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction are in their hands.”

That news caused my stomach to drop. Of course they had them. If they didn’t have all the nukes, someone would have used them. Who the hell would hesitate to nuke faceless soldiers murdering their way across your own country? Other people didn’t take it so well.

The General continued on. “Right now, I control two thousand five hundred of the four thousand square kilometers of Worcester County. I have over three million charges, most of them unarmed refugees.

“Outside my defensive perimeter is an enemy that has been confirmed to kill innocents, mostly the sick and the elderly. They have done so with a high-tech, organized barbarity that pales to anything we’ve ever seen. This force is poised on the doorstep, ready to strike.

“It was the duty of the United States Armed Forces to stop this kind of threat. I think it is fair to say that we have failed utterly. Many, both in and out of my country, have looked to us to face this threat. If we had done everything we could, there would be no shame in that. But we haven’t. Our failure goes back decades, if not to the foundation of this country.

“A few months ago, we were the greatest country in the world. Instead of sharing that greatness with the rest of the world, we instead took the best from other countries while giving the minimum in return. We promised so much, and in the end, all we have to give is this.

“To those remaining under my command and protection, I would encourage you to fight. We still have a chance to make a difference. If you want to run or surrender, I would not recommend it as the Dragon’s Teeth have rarely taken prisoners. If neither option sounds appealing, the only other I can think of is spending time with those you care about. Thank you all, and God bless America.”

With that, the radio switched to a slow, mournful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. For a few seconds, there was a silence. Then Eliza loudly proclaimed, “Fuckin’ ‘ell that was an awful speech!”

 

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Track 26: The Battle of Boston

Everything was horrific. Throughout the few remaining places that the US was holding on, Dragon’s Teeth were making fifth-column maneuvers and poking their noses in via traditional methods.

It was all I could do to keep from running off down Route 90 to do something. Hell, it took most of the NIU students still there to stop me. As Eliza said multiple times, “Oi, what the ‘ell’re you going to do, y’fuckin’ cripple? Ram them with yer bloody chair?”

The news was mostly bad. Valkyrie would come back for rests looking bloody and various gangsters would send for more weapons and ammo or repairs. When they left, I noticed that some of the NIU students would catch a ride.

Jen was the first one to come back for ammo. As soon as her harried men began loading ammo into vans, she stalked towards me. “NATE!” she yelled.

“Yes?” I asked, glad Eliza wasn’t there. Something told me that if Eliza had seen someone yell at me, there would be blood.

“Where the hell,” Jen snarled, “is your little play buddy?”

“Mai?” I said, confused. “Wouldn’t you know her better than I would?”

Jen ignored that. “The little backstabbing bitch disappeared twenty-four hours before the Teeth appeared, and she took her friends with her. Oh, and guess where the Teeth established their beachhead? Chinatown! Her part of Chinatown!”

For four days, from what Eric, the gangsters and the news was telling, the Dragon’s Teeth was trapped in a small triangle formed by the Route 90 underpass to the south, Columbus Avenue and the Common to the West, the blocks around by the Orpheum to the North, and Harbor to the East. The thing that had stopped them were heroic efforts by Jen’s people, Boston Police on patrol, and Valkyrie to stop their initial surge. Then more law enforcement and elements of the Massachusetts National Guard and the 75th US Army Rangers had come in quickly.

The Rangers, in particular, had relished the fight. Some of their number apparently still remembered Gothic Serpent and had remembered the lessons Habar Gidir had taught them about urban combat. Gleefully working with surprisingly well-equipped gangsters, who by that point, were streaming in from all over Boston and beyond, they began repurposing their inferior vehicles as barricades. Dumpsters, trucks, Humvees and commandeered civilian vehicles were hurriedly moved into huge piles and occasionally booby-trapped, and angry men with guns placed in nearby buildings.

Surprisingly, this is where how light the Dragon’s Teeth vehicles turned against them. A Bradley or a Stryker would have been heavy enough to ram many of the barricades, but the Charons just dented them, leaving them sitting ducks for LAWs, Javelin missiles, Barret .50 calibers, M2 machineguns, cannon fire, and every other bit of nastiness the US Military could throw at them.

Other cities weren’t as lucky. New York had pretty much lost Long Island, Baltimore, DC, and everything south of the Potomac had finally fallen, and the Teeth seemed to be making a good effort at cutting the remaining US territory in half.

The Canadians, however, didn’t seem like they were going to take any more Deet shit. Their armies began crossing into contested Buffalo, and making their way into Teeth-held territory like Michigan and Washington State. Massive battles were going on in Detroit, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and a town I’d never heard of called Blaine, Washington. Others began heading down via 91 and 93to Boston, only to be intercepted by the Teeth coming out of nowhere. Shortly after, the Latin-American coalition began pushing up across the southern border. Part of their line had stopped around Texarkana, but most were taking massive casualties in skirmishes.

After four days, however, they got out of the triangle in Boston and halted the Canadians and Latin Americans. Slowly, they began taking more and more of Boston. From what I understood, there was a new type of Dragon’s Teeth clone that seemed to be bred for extended periods of close-quarters combat. Within nine days, they had managed to get up to Route 93, cutting off most of the Rangers and irregulars in the North End.

Meanwhile, civilians were dying in droves. The Dragon’s Teeth did not seem to care about who was in their sights, they just were shooting. Of course, the gangs and concerned citizens were probably not helping, but when Valkyrie came back she put paid to that idea.

“I went into their territory,” she said. “They’re deliberately executing elderly and sickly. I’ve seen it. They took a bunch of old and sick people out by the Harborwalk, shot them in the back, and kicked them into the Bay. That may have been an anomaly, but the way they go after fleeing civilians, well, there’s only so much heat of the moment can justify.”

“So they’re committing genocide,” I said. “Good to know.” I sent a prayer I didn’t know how to make in hopes that the Dragon’s Teeth didn’t get out of Boston.

That prayer wasn’t answered. As the days got colder, the Dragon’s Teeth got bolder. By the end of September, they had taken over most of Boston except the North End where the Rangers were making a desperate last-stand. The only thing that was stopping them was that their new tanks (which were more like WWI landships than anything sensible and equipped with their plasma balls) were too big to get into the tight streets. Meanwhile, by the first of October, surrounding towns like Cambridge, Sommerville, and Jamaica Plains were turning into a cross between Kursk and Stalingrad.

Yet it was all over by the time they had got to Logan Airport. October third, through a combination of Charons modified to drive on the Green and Silver lines and some boats that seemed made specifically for this purpose, the Dragon’s Teeth crossed the harbor. By the fifth, it had been secured and Dragon’s Teeth aircraft based there were making air superiority and close air support runs from Southern Connecticut and parts of New York to Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire.

Valkyrie and Jen were supposed to meet with us for a few hours of shuteye that day. They didn’t. The living quarters were so empty now that it was just Eric’s crew, Cross, Oro, and two of the students I didn’t recognize. Since most radio and TV went down due to Dragon’s Teeth bombing and many social networking sites had been dead since California had fallen, we had simply lost all communication with the outside world.

When I asked Eric the next day if we could contact the people he’d brought with him, he shook his head. “No,” he said. “They’re only supposed to send things in tight bursts back to NIU. We don’t want them getting caught.”

In the meantime, we spent the next few days listening to planes and helicopters fly overhead and bombs fall. We were pretty close to a highway on and off ramp so we’d also see and hear vehicles moving by at all hours of the day. I noticed that all civilian traffic had stopped. There hadn’t been a travel ban that I’d heard, so I assumed that everyone had given up trying to get to safety.

Then on the seventh, late in the day as the sun was going down, a column of battered civilian SUVs pulled up in front of the factory. I had been watching the cameras, but lights flashed in case I missed it.

I pressed the intercom, “Heads up, everyone,” I said. “We’ve got a civvie convoy. It looks pretty beat up I don’t trust anything right now.” Then, from the lead SUV, someone in Samurai-inspired armor and a white face mask with demon horns and glowing eyes got out. “It seems like Jen, but appearences can be deceiving.”

In the factory, I could hear everyone else grabbing and loading weapons. On the screen, I saw the person dressed like Jen staggering towards the intercom. “Nathan,” she said, her voice ragged. “Open up. Open up.”

“How do I know-”

“On our time in Japan,” she said, “I hugged you when you came to check on me before the meetup with the Yakuza. I told you that everyone I love dies because I fail them.”

I turned around, half expecting Eliza to be there holding a gun and a bland expression on her face. She was. “Well,” she said, her voice very modulated, “that’s probably ‘er, innit?”

“Nothing else happened between us,” I said. “It didn’t go any farther than-”

“That isn’t what I’m pissed about!” Eliza snapped. I began to speak, but Eliza cut me off. “And no, it isn’t because y’didn’t tell me, but it bloody well isn’t helping.” She sighed and gestured to the screen. “Let ‘er in. We can talk about this later.”

I called it in to the intercom and let the cars in, then went to meet up with Jen. Eliza was very insistent on pushing my wheelchair. When we came in sight of Jen, she was being carried by Eric and the blond woman with the G36.

Despite her unearthly white mask with glowing blue eyes, I could tell she was exhausted. She turned to me and said, “They’ve broken through.”

My stomach dropped.

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Track 25: The Takeover

“Eric,” I said, after Valkyrie had finally left, “any particular reason why you showed up? I’ve noticed that everyone was… vague with our friendly neighborhood super hero.”

“Of course,” Eric said. “We don’t really want to talk about NIU with her around, you understand.”

“Or why you’re here,” I suggested. Eric had mentioned something about personal vendettas against the Dragon’s Teeth, but apart from the two white people who weren’t Cross and some of the Middle Easterners, I had a sneaking suspicion that most of the people were from countries that the Dragon’s Teeth didn’t consider strategically important. Apart from some border clashes with Egypt, most of the African countries were relatively Deet-free and many of the South-East and Central Asian countries like Vietnam, Taiwan, Burma and the Philippines were only being menaced by the Teeth in China and India and annoyed by refugees instead of dealing with full-scale invasion.

“Well,” Eric said, “we are mostly here to observe and report. Some of us are going to attempt to blend in among the populace if the Dragon’s Teeth come in full force. Others are going to attempt to keep you alive and this facility out of Dragon’s Teeth hands.”

“Makes sense,” I said, “But-”

“That first goal is going to be very hard,” Eric said, completely po-faced. “You seem to like getting yourself into stupid situations.”

“Fuck you,” I said, punching him in the arm. “I’ve been good recently.”

“Yes,” Eric said. “Very well-behaved. In fact, diplomats will be using your behavior in Japan as an etiquette guide.”

“That was an accident.”

Eric laughed. “Then if I ever get fine china, remind me to always give you paper plates, my friend. In fact, if that is your idea of an innocent mistake, I should probably stay a couple kilometers away from you just to avoid your blast radius.”

“Very funny,” I said, trying not to consider the costs of my “mistakes.” “But seriously, there isn’t any hidden agendas? Nothing you’re hiding from me?”

“No, Killer,” Eric said. He smiled. I was not reassured.

Over the next few weeks, I showed Eric and the rest of the people how to work the guns I’d developed. Eric, Ray-Gun, and MC Disaster figured a way to use the Fuckup effectively at the firing range. Eric would fire the gun and clear the inevitable malfunctions. When a belt ran out of ammo, he’d pull the cocking lever for the belt on the other side. Meanwhile, Ray-Gun and MC were on either side, ready with extra belts and spare barrels. Thus, when on a bipod or tripod (and ignoring the many, many malfunctions,) the Fuckup could fire near continuously, because it could be reloaded while firing. When they weren’t doing maintenance or reloading, Ray-Gun and MC Disaster would help Doc and the Monk provide covering fire.

Meanwhile, the news seemed to be getting better and better. Canadian forces were massing to the north, with the occasional reinforcements from Austrailia, New Zealand, and various exiled Asians, and to the south, most of the Latin American nations were moving troops to the US-Mexican border. As I was watching a report about the overseas reinforcements, MC Disaster said, “We shouldn’t expect too many.”

I turned to him. “There’s a reason they captured all those ships instead of sinking them,” MC said. “They’re patrolling the seas, sinking anything bigger than a rubber dinghy and capturing oil derricks to use as lookout towers. We almost got sunk by destroyers several times.”

“Dragon’s Teeth or scared and confused runners?”

MC grimaced. “Hard to tell. The Dragon’s Teeth don’t keep their flags up. Either way, we think our subs looked too much like the kind of subs the Dragon’s Teeth look like on radar.”

“By the way,” I said, “any news on where the other people are?”

“What other people?” MC asked.

“The people you came in with,” I said. “There were like, twenty or thirty so operators you came in with. I mean, there still are, but a few are different.” MC suddenly began studying his palms like he was trying to see the future. “Look,” I said, annoyed, “I accept that you’re going to be doing recon. I can help. But if you’re going behind my back, and I don’t know what you’re doing, and you do something big enough to draw attention, then I’m going to have to give you up. If you let me help you, we can avoid that.”

“As long as the Dragon’s Teeth don’t occupy this place,” MC said carefully, “we won’t be attracting attention. Until then, our silence is your protection.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“The Dragon’s Teeth wants you alive,” MC said. “If they take this city, we want them to take you. If they give you some liberty, then we want you to be an asset.”

“And if they break me or Eliza,” I said, “then you all are compromised.”

“Who says it’s just us?” MC asked.

I turned back to the TV. A reporter was in Boston Common, facing the State House, talking about something or other. In the background, for some reason, I noticed that some cops with long guns were walking to the left, like there had been a non-urgent disturbance of some sort.

Then, there was a crashing sound, and a vehicle that, from the distance the camera was at, looked like an Escalade or similar SUV, raced into view, running down the cops before they could eve raise their guns. “Oh my God!” The reporter said. “You just saw this, a car accident outside Beacon Hill, hitting multiple police-”

Then five more SUVs also raced in from the same direction and seven from the opposite one. All thirteen changed color from various civilian colors to an urban camo pattern. Simultaneously, a turret raised from where a sunroof would be on a normal SUV, and Picts began dismounting. I noticed that they had supplemented their Deet-issued weapons with various captured guns.

“So,” I said, turning to MC, “assuming they’re not in Worcester already, how much do you want to bet they won’t be here by October?”

MC laughed. “That’s three weeks away. They’re going to be here by Friday.”

 

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Track 24: Old Friends

From that day forward, I had pretty much decided that leaving the factory was a bad idea. Eliza managed to get my Subaru from the apartment and into the parking lot. I didn’t know how she did it in the midst of all the panicked people.

Speaking of the refugee situation, it seemed to be untenable. People were running east and north in a panicked rush while the armed forces desperately tried to organize. Israel, Iran, and Turkey had gone under, as well as many NATO nations and other allies. The Dragon’s Teeth controlled the air and the sea. What forces we had abroad were either isolated or fighting for their lives. Many people had either given up or were trying to get to Canada.

In fact, in a strange twist of fate, Canada, Mexico, and the other American nations looked like one of the US’s few chances of salvation. When I could turn on the news, all they’d talk about was the coalition that was being assembled and the counterattack they’d lead. I didn’t buy it. The Dragon’s Teeth were probably digging in, and it’d take a lot more than a three-to-one ratio to dislodge them.

Valkyrie was doing the distribution for the weapons and ammo. Occasionally, I’d ask if the people we were equipping were doing what they were supposed to or if they’d started killing each other. Her usual response was, “As far as I can tell? Neither.” Then she’d go back to helping the people load whatever van they’d brought in, and Eliza and I would go back to watching them to make sure they didn’t take anything they weren’t supposed to or go anywhere we didn’t want them. After they were gone, we’d then go back to making the place habitable.

It was one of the times in between visits from crooks converted to teamster duty that we heard the intercom by door sound. I went to the security panel. There, pushing his face into the lens of the intercom camera so much it fish-eyed, was John Marshall’s short beard and close-cropped hair. From another view, I could see he was with Kyle Rockford, a somewhat unassuming, if generically star-quarterback-looking guy waiting behind him. Behind them was an old 90’s era Acura coupe packed full of luggage.

“Nate!” John was saying, somewhat frustrated. “Come on, I know you’re in there.”

“Sorry,” I said, picking up the mic as I wheeled over, trying not to spill the laundry basket full of clean clothes. “I was just trying to get some housecleaning done.”

“Oi!” I heard Eliza shout from somewhere in facility, “‘oo’s  thaAAAGH!” She was cut off by metallic clattering. Then there was a stream of creative cursing.

“I see Eliza’s here as well?” Kyle asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Let me see if I can help, then-”

“No!” Eliza said. “You’re in a bloody wheelchair, y’can’t ‘elp! You let ‘em in like-” There was a thunk that sounded like something metal had hit something fleshy, then the clang of it falling onto the floor. Eliza screamed, more in frustration then in pain.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“I’m FINE!” Eliza said.

After I had let Kyle and John in, we came in to the room Eliza had been attacked in. She was putting pipes back into a cupboard, muttering angrily. “Fuckin’ bloody pipes, bloody cabinets, bloody yanks and their bullshite washing machines. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks!” With a scream, she kicked the wall.

“She’s trying to set up a washer and drier in here,” I said. “I’ve been helping where I can.”

“You can help?” Kyle said. “I’m surprised that you can move on your own.”

That reminded me, I was due for painkillers. But now was not the time to mention that. “It’s no biggie,” I said. “What are you guys doing here?”

“I live in the Midwest.” Kyle said. “Or lived in the Midwest. Then the Teeth rolled in and started shooting everyone.” He’d obviously intended to stop there, but he just had to continue. As he did, his voice became more and more choked up and he began to cry. “They burned most of the houses and dragged people out to the center of town. I managed to hide, but my grandad… he told them I’d died in Iraq when they asked about who I was in the picture… I heard him say it.” By this point he was in tears and had collapsed on the floor. “They shot him,” he said, so choked up from tears I could barely understand. “And while he was dying, they poured gas or something and set the house on fire. I hid in the bomb shelter and then…”

It was there that language failed him. He sobbed and began rocking back and forth. I wheeled over to him and patted him on the shoulder. “Hey,” I said softly. “We’re here. What do you want to do?” I kept repeating that last sentence over and over again until he calmed down.

When he did, he said, in a gasping, post-crying jag voice, “I want to honor my grandparents’ memory. I want to do what I can to stop them.”

“Damn,” I said. “I’m not sure I can help with that. Will killing the bastards suffice?”

John looked at me. “You don’t have a plan?”

“Did you expect us to?” I asked. “Look, you know my area of expertise. Hell, you share at least eighty percent of my skillset. The military isn’t buying my guns, and even if they were, well, what use are small arms going to be against tanks and aircraft?”

“Oi,” Eliza said, looking at me, “D’you need anti-depressants as well as painkillers?”

“Probably,” I said. “Or, like, a bottle of Jack or something.”

“So,” John said, cutting in, “what are you doing?” At my blank look, he said, “You know, about the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“What can I do?” I asked. “At some point, they’re going to start advancing again, and when I do that, I guess I can kill a few of them. Until then, I’ve done all I could and boy, was it not enough.”

“Have you been drinking?” John asked.

“John,” I said, “I’m taking industrial levels of Ox, even though it barely lets me function. If my grape juice is a little elderly, I’d fucking die.”

John nodded. “Ok, fair enough. You got anything to eat?”

“Power Sludge,” I said. “And no, there aren’t any restaurants open that we can reasonably get to.”

The thing I quickly noticed was that certain things we had done to get the place habitable for Eliza and me carried over. The two completely useless fridges, for instance, would probably hold enough food for all of us and the washer and drier (when we got them set up) was more than capable of handling all our demands. Other things like beds were harder to deal with. Eliza and I were sharing a twin-sized mattress, for instance. John and Kyle did not want to share a bed with us or each other.

Around the start of September, Valkyrie came back. The factory was functioning as a living space and occasionally we’d be able to get food that wasn’t awful synthetic glop that looked suspiciously like vomit. That didn’t mean it was great food. So when we let Valkyrie come in through a window, we were all happy to see she was carrying several boxes of pizza.

“Valkyrie!” I said happily. “Where’d you get that?”

“I may be on the up and up,” Valkyrie said, setting down the pizzas, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t have connections. I literally got what might be the last takeout pizzas in Worcester. Plus,” she unhooked a bag from her arm, “some big sodas.”

We began to dig in. After a few slices of cheese pizza (there was only cheese pizza,) I asked, “So, how’s the arm distribution going?”

“Reasonably well,” Valkyrie said. “They haven’t started killing each other and there hasn’t been too much extortion of refugees.”

“Always nice,” John said. Reasonably, he didn’t exactly approve of giving people like Jen scarily effective firearms, many of which were easy to conceal. Yet he didn’t really see any alternatives. Basically, we were in agreement.

“Any sightings of Deets?” Kyle asked. “I’m… a little conflicted on how soon I want to see these guys again.”

Valkyrie shrugged. “Not sure. Jen’s looking, and I’m reasonably sure she’s telling the truth. The others could be, or they could be in the process of cutting deals with them.”

“Any you suspect in particular?” I asked. Valkyrie looked hesitant. “If you say Mai’s playing both ends against the middle, I won’t bite your head off,” I said. “Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jen was playing us. Disappointed, but surprised.”

“You’re right,” Valkyrie said. “Jen will try to use this to get ahead, but she’ll just try to screw the other leaders so that when things calm down she’ll be in a better position. Mai, meanwhile, is going to disappear as soon as the Teeth get into town.”

“Dealt with these fuck eggs a lot, ‘aven’t you?” Eliza asked.

“Oh yes,” Valkyrie said as Kyle and John giggled at “fuck eggs.” “I swear, ninety percent of my job involves talking to these guys and asking them stuff like ‘what did you assholes do now?’ over and over.”

There was a buzz. “Someone’s at the door,” I said, moving to get it.

“Oi,” Eliza said. “You fuckin’ stay there.” She got up muttering darkly about invalids who thought they were well. We sat there as she talked to the person happily. I drank some soda. John and Kyle had their hands on their guns. Valkyrie calmly ate her pizza.

Eventually, Eliza came back into the room, smiling. “Guess ‘oo’s ‘ere!” She said. “Eric an’ ‘is mates!”

“Who?” Valkyrie asked.

“We’ll bring them in,” John said, “you can meet them then.”

They all left hurriedly. Valkyrie raised her eyebrows. “Eric’s a former child soldier from Africa,” I said. “He’s very friendly, but he and the rest of his group would prefer you not ask about their past.” Valkyrie nodded, examining me, as if calculating how much more damage would be done.

When Eric came in, it wasn’t just with Doc, MC Disaster, Ray-Gun and the Monk. Oro and Cross were also there, as well as a lot of other students from NIU’s AMS and Shadowhaven programs. All of them seemed to have some sort of concealed weaponry, judging by the bulges in their clothes, and many of them were chattering excitedly. A few began to reveal their weapons (mostly assault rifles and pistols, but there were also some SMGs, shotguns, sniper rifles, anti-tank rockets, grenade launchers, and belt-fed machine guns,) and unloading them.

“Valkyrie brought us pizza,” John said, “but I don’t think there’ll be enough.”

“Do not worry, my friend,” Eric said, pointing to a Hispanic woman chatting with Eliza and carrying several boxes, “Camilla is also bringing gifts.” He pointed to an Asian man carrying several bags of what appeared to be Mexican food. “So is Bunrouen.”

After I had watched the room slowly became covered in weapon parts, ammo, grenades, what appeared to be bricks of C4 or worse, and people eating junk food and drinking soda and alcohol, I nervously turned to look back at Valkyrie.

Her face did not express amusement.

 

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Track 15: Calm Before the Storm

I hadn’t even been mulling over Alma’s statement a minute when Eliza came back in. She was paler than usual and she sat down heavily. “What happened?” I asked.

“It’s fallen,” Eliza said.

“Really?” I asked. “I mean, I know Hawaii probably wasn’t prepared, but…”

“No, not Hawaii,” Eliza said, “The UK.” We shut up, me mostly because I was stunned. “Though Hawaii probably’s going down soon.”

“What do you mean, ‘England’s fallen?’” I asked. “England doesn’t just fall. They aren’t fucking Denmark.”

“I bloody know, mate,” Eliza said. “But they’ve got our silos, Buckingham’s in their control, and pretty much every major city and military base from Edinburgh to London’s got a nice ol’ infestation of Drake.”

“But…” I said, “but how? Yesterday they were on the other side of the channel!”

“Probably has something to do with their gateways,” Eliza said. “But yeah, that was record time for them. From what we can gather, they put a huge amount into this one. Seemed to be a higher ratio of Dragon’s Teeth to defenders than normal. And they were a lot less concerned with civilian casualties.”

“Jesus…” I said. “What the hell?”

“I know,” Eliza said. “D’you think they’re gonna stop there?”

“No,” I said. “I wish I could say they would, but I’d be willing to bet I’m going to figure out first-hand what you’re experiencing soon.”

“Oh, by the way,” I said, “I lost my phone.”

Eliza groaned. “Jesus Christ, now those bastards have a direct line on everyone in your contacts.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Can I borrow your phone to give them a heads up?”

“Better do that,” Eliza said.

As I was texting everyone possibly affected, I said, “By the way, you remember Alma Hebert?”

“My creepy first year roommate?” Eliza asked. “Yeah, definitely.” She shivered theatrically. “You know she hung around with Ulfric? Saw ‘em together multiple times. Guess they were off in the same ways.”

“She’s the Death Goddess,” I said.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Eliza said.

“And I think that Ulfric might be Dragon’s Teeth, now that I think about it,” I said. “I actually saw a few guys that looked a hell of a lot like him.”

“I refer you to my previous statement,” Eliza said. Then she groaned. “Gah, how the fuck didn’t anyone realize this?”

“I get the feeling that there wasn’t much coordination between the guys who made the Dragon’s Teeth,” I said. “The Jason Project, that’s what they’re called…”

“‘Course they are,” Eliza said,

“…Couldn’t really be in regular contact with the President at the beginning, plus there was plausible deniability and then they went rogue.”

Eliza laughed. “Fuckin’ typical, innit? Goddamn conga line of betrayal. The President hires some people to make monsters to take over the world for ‘im, they make the monsters and decide they don’t need to follow orders. Then the monsters start tryin’ to revolt.” She paused. “‘Ow’d you figure out that Alma was…?”

“She contacted me with her psychic powers,” I said.

Eliza groaned something about “not signing up for this” and threw her head back in exasperation.

“My life,” I said, “is just so incredibly strange right now.”

“Warn the people your weirdness might rub off on, weird boy,” Eliza said.

“Getting on it right now,” I said.

John Marshall was the first person I called. He had been my fellow UNIX infiltrator (well, one of four, but he had been the one I had made contact with in Hell Semester) and we had been close for a while. The problem was that John wanted out, and I may or may not be an addict. When he went to North Korea, he had ended up getting shot in a firefight with South Korean police. Then there was Japan, and John had decided he was out.

After listening to my explanation, he said, voice dangerous, “So, basically, because of you, I might have been doxed by the Dragon’s Teeth?”

“Potentially,” I said. “In my defense, this was not my fault.”

“You had my number in your phone,” John said, “despite the fact that you knew people could hack it. But yeah, completely not your fault.” He then hung up. You can’t really slam a cPhone, but if he could, he would have.

“Well fuck you too,” I said. Then I called Eric. Eric, Ray-Gun, the Monk, MC Disaster, and Doc were some former African child soldiers I’d met in Hell Semester. My knowledge of their days back home was sketchy. For instance, I wasn’t entirely sure which country they were even from. I did, however, know that they’d done something to piss off a local warlord.

“Thank you my friend,” Eric said after I had filled him in. “I will tell the rest of my crew.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll call Cross next.” Croccifixio “Cross” Castellan was another buddy from Hell Semester. He was from New York and was the son of some sort of mobster.

“Excuse me a moment,” Eric said, then yelled away from the phone, “Cross! Stop fucking Doc in the ass for a few minutes! Nathan needs to tell you something!” Turning back to me, he said, “He got back here a few hours after we cleaned up from the Dragon’s Teeth attack. Whenever he and Doc want to have sex, they kick everyone else out.”

From inside the room, I heard Cross yell, “Fuck you! We weren’t doing anything!”

“I will refrain from your kind offer for the moment,” Eric said.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt whatever it is you’re doing there…” I began, but I heard the door open and Eric hand off the phone to Cross. “Hey Cross,” I said.

“‘Sup?” Cross asked.

“So I lost my cPhone and it had your cPhone number on it,” I said, “Plus a Deet got a good look at it. Now it’s sitting in the FBI Honolulu office, waiting for invading Dragon’s Teeth to find it.”

“How the fuck did… never mind, I don’t want to know,” Cross said. “Those assholes just show up everywhere. That’s why my dad sent me to school. We’ve been hearing shit in New York for months now.”

“Really?” I asked. “How come I haven’t heard anything?”

“Look,” Cross said, “I don’t mean to diss newspapers, but they don’t spend hours talking to bums and crackheads unless they have some bullshit ‘human interest story.’ They don’t poke around abandoned buildings and bumfuck-nowhere wilderness looking for stories. People I know? They’re interacting with those people and going to those places every fucking day.”

“And what are they noticing?” I asked.

“Activity.” Cross said. “One guy of ours was burying a corpse in his favorite spot. Then he struck this hunk of prime rib. Few feet beneath that? Fucking junkie with a hole through her heart that looked burned around the edges. That’s how it started.”

“Yeah,” I said, “those injuries sound like something only Dragon’s Teeth can make.”

“Basically, they’re setting something up,” Cross said, “and the junkies and bums are accidentally stumbling on it ‘cause they’re looking for places to sleep for the night or get high. We’re hesitant to tell the cops ‘cause, y’know…”

“Why were you digging a hole there?” I finished. “Why were you talking to that guy?”

“Exactly,” Cross said. “We don’t want to tell the police because that’s gonna fuck things up. Even if leaving things as-is will fuck things up worse.”

“What about the super heroes?” I asked. “I mean, isn’t this the kind of stuff that-”

“Nate,” Cross said, “here’s a tip: capes don’t give a fucking shit. Maybe some of the noobs do, but most of these ‘heroes’ are just in it for the fame and… and the fucking, I dunno, Sprite deals. You should know. You live in Boston.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“Vast majority of those guys,” Cross said, “fix their fights. Your girl Jen was probably the last to fix hers.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I dunno,” Cross said. “Probably because she needed the cash like all the rest.”

“No,” I said, “why didn’t she think of it first?”

“Jen’s weird,” Cross said. “Smart, good at business, but weird.”

“Speaking of Jen,” I said, “I actually need to call her about this.”

“Yeah,” Cross said, “You definitely should start in on that.”

As soon as I hung up, I had an idea. “Hey, Eliza,” I said. “You know how I don’t know that much about lawyers?”

“Yeah?” she asked, her eyebrow raising suspiciously.

“I think I know who does.”

“Fucking Christ,” Eliza said. “It’s Jen, isn’t it?”

“Do you trust Hicks not to arrest us as soon as we touch down in LA?” I asked. “I mean, I like the guy, but he’s a cop.”

“Fuck no,” Eliza said. She sighed. “Call her, I guess.”

 

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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 15: Shot Through the Heart

Apparently, Eliza and I weren’t the only ones to see that vision. According to an email I read, a lot of other people on the island had seen the same thing and the TV in Sun Tzu had a report about psionically sensitive people seeing strange visions all over the world. I was worried, but I realized that there was nothing about it I could do. Instead, I spent all my spare time trying to do rough sketches of the next weapons.

Finally, it was time to go to the study group/weapons test. Saturday morning, I actually had managed to sleep until seven. Considering when I usually got to bed and how little time I actually spent sleeping, it was unsurprising that I was usually tired. I considered going back to sleep, then considered the nightmares I was likely to get. After those lovely thoughts, I began the process of getting ready without disturbing John.

After I got in, I noticed that he had gotten dressed while I was doing the same, plus showering and brushing teeth. “Did I wake you up?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “not really. Besides, I can sleep through all sorts of crap.”

“Also,” I said, “sorry about the other night with Eliza. I…”

“Hey,” John said, “it was much better than what you walked into when Bai was here. Besides, she kind of lives on the floor above us.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” John said. “She rooms with Oro, but it’s functionally a single. Don’t ask where Oro goes, Bai never asks and I’d bet anything she wouldn’t tell if she knew.” He gestured at the door with his toothbrush. “Anyway…”

“Certainly,” I said.

Eventually he came back. For once, we actually talked a bit, mostly about classes. It was weird. Ever since we had gotten back to the island, we had stopped talking to each other. It was weird.

I thought back to what Eliza had said about Charlotte blaming herself for whatever happened in England over vacation. “John,” I asked, “do you blame me for what happened in Korea?”

“Which part?” he asked.

“Uh… the part where you got shot.”

“Ah.” John said nervously. “That part.”

There was a long, awkward pause. Finally, he said, “I don’t really blame anyone for what happened. I mean, I could blame you, but you never really forced me or even ordered me into that particular situation. I could blame the guy who actually shot me, but he was completely in the right to do so. I could blame myself, but honestly those things happen.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said.

“Is there a reason you asked?” John asked.

“It’s just…” I said, “…things have been weird between us since then, you know?”

“Yeah.” John said. There was another pause, then he blurted out, “It’s just… you’d do it again. Meanwhile, I’m convinced the next time I do something like this, I could die. I will die.”

“You don’t have to continue doing this,” I said. “You’re not on a tour of duty, and there’s plenty of other people who can do this.”

John cocked his head. “You really believe that?” he asked skeptically. “That we can sit back?” I hesitated. John sighed. “I thought so. Fuck me, right?”

Suddenly, our phones beeped. We both reached for them. It was Nari, sending out a mass text. Apparently, she was out in front of Sun Tzu. “You want to head out?” I asked John.

“Sure,” he said. “I kind of want to see how this gun you’ve been working on handles.”

“Actually,” I said as I unlocked my gun safe, “these ones are models that Nari’s improved.” I reached in and pulled out the prototype. “This is the one I made.” I held it for a moment, then put it in my pocket after making sure it was on safe. “Might be useful to give people an idea of how much its improved.”

“I call first dibs,” John said.

We walked down to Sun Tzu together, meeting Cross, Bai, Oro, and Eric’s crew on the way down. Ray-Gun, in particular was particularly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Cross, however, was quite grumpy.

“Listen, Ray,” he said as we got out of the elevator, “I know you like high-tech stuff, but I haven’t even had breakfast yet. Or my morning coffee. I need you to get the fuck outta my face with your tobacco and your chipperness for five seconds.”

“I’m sorry you are such a sad individual,” Ray-Gun said, waving his still-burning cigarette around expressively, “but I cannot control my excitement, and I have no wish to.”

“You are lucky,” MC Disaster said quietly. “At least they aren’t laser or plasma-based. Then he’d never shut up.”

The banter continued like this for the few seconds it took us to leave our dorm and see Nari, May, Sunny, and Andy waiting by the entrance to Sun Tzu. Sunny and Andy looked drained. May looked like her usual hyper self, albeit somewhat annoyed. Nari, meanwhile, looked like she had stolen the energy from the other three. She was also holding an ABS case and a cloth bag.

“Good,” Nari said upon seeing us, “you have made it.” She then turned around and beckoned imperiously. “Come on,” she said. “The range is only open for a limited time.”

Sunny, noticing that some of us (Cross) weren’t exactly thrilled to be ordered around by a ten-year-old, said, “Sorry. She’s a little…”

Eric interrupted by asking Nari, “So, my Queen,” he asked jovially, “what do you wish of your court today?” He had moved up besides Nari, and as he said this he made a parody of an obsequious bow.

“Don’t encourage her,” Sunny said, shooting Eric a venomous expression.

Nari, suddenly realizing what she had done, cringed slightly. “Sorry…” she said.

“Besides,” Andy said jokingly, “if anyone’s queen, it’d be May.”

Normally, May would either jokingly accept the title or cede it out of embarrassment, but today, she just made a noncommittal noise of recognition. Everyone else continued on as normal, but Andy and I noticed. I’m pretty sure that Nari noticed as well, but Eric was keeping her busy.

Eventually, Nari lead us into the room she had reserved. First, she opened the case to reveal six of the new pistols with two magazines each. These pistols were identified by stickers on the grip and barrel made by a label maker. As Andy had said, their aesthetic had been radically changed to a hybrid of the Berreta M-92’s long, double-cut slide and Desert Eagle’s triangular shape. The only bits of my original design that remained were the FNP-style sight mounts and the barrel that extended beyond the slide. Then she opened the bag to reveal that it had two plastic bags.

While she was doing that, I said, “Hey, Nari, John wanted to test out the first prototype, so I brought it along.”

“Did you bring magazines for it?” she asked. “I had to rework the magazines slightly. It wasn’t that big of a change.”

“Here you go,” I said, handing her the pistol and a spare mag.

She set the weapon on top of the newer versions. “Attention, please!” she called out. When she had everyone’s attention, she said, “In the case are prototypes of the Uilon Mangchi. Most of them are the second prototype, but one is the first. Do not get their magazines mixed up! Generation one has a different magazine than generation two, and I need to collect data on how they work.” When she saw that everyone had gotten this information, she continued, “In the white plastic bag, I have put tungsten-core rounds. In the other, I have bullets made out of a new compound taken from Grenzefrontier troops called seltsamemetall. Please make a note of which type of ammo you use and which gun you’re using on the sheets on the station, as well as any malfunctions. Mr. Jacobs, would you please instruct our guests in the operation of these weapons?”

Luckily, the controls on the first generation were the same as the ones on the second, which made things much quicker. The problem was that as soon as I had walked everyone through the process of loading, unloading and putting the Uilon Mangchi on safety, there was a knock on the door.

I opened it. There, smiling brightly, was Eliza. Behind her were Jennifer and Charlotte. “Sorry I’m late!” Eliza said. “What’d I miss?”

“Well…” I said, somewhat sheepishly, “kinda everything.”

Nari looked over my shoulder. “I know the mutant,” she said, “sorry… I mean Lupine. But I do not remember meeting the other two.”

“Charlotte is Eliza’s adopted sister,” I said. “Jennifer is… Jennifer.” Jennifer laughed in amusement at this. It was the kind of laugh that wasn’t supposed to remind you she was a supervillain, but did anyway. “They’re both in the Rogue program.”

I’m not sure why I mentioned that last bit, but I could feel Nari light up behind me. “Excellent!” she said. “I think we could use a law enforcement or enthusiast perspective on our weaponry.”

“I’m a little more than…” Jennifer began.

At the same time, May said, “I would prefer to avoid the civ…”

“Details, details,” Nari said. I turned around to see her literally wave off my concern. “Brief them on the details of operation and data gathering, Mr. Jacobs. After the first round, join us for the shareholders meeting.”

After running through everything again, I sat back and watched the first wave go. Everyone with the second generation prototype got the hang of it pretty quick. John, who was using the first generation, got the operation down pretty quick. After he finished his forty rounds (by which time all the other shooters had finished theirs,) he said, “If the fucking thing didn’t keep jamming or feel like I was firing a magnum, I’d say it was really good. It has some really nice penetration on it, which would have come in handy in Korea.” I nodded, remembering the abnormally strong armor of the Dragon’s Teeth. Hell, I had even had trouble penetrating the South Korean SWAT officer’s hard body armor with pistol rounds. 6.5mm seemed to solve that last problem pretty handily, though.

The Monk spoke up. “The newer version has greatly improved on the recoil, but I still do not like it. I also dislike the trigger. It seems a little heavy.” He paused to consider. “Then again, the recoil is comparable to your SIG, so I suppose someone might like it.” As he spoke, I noticed Nari was scribbling in a notebook.

MC Disaster spoke up again, making it a personal record for speaking in a day. “My thoughts are very similar. I quite like the power, I can tolerate the recoil, and I dislike the trigger pull. However, to determine if I would carry it into battle, I’d have to spend a lot more range time with it.” He considered the gun for a moment. Finally, he asked, “Does it really have to look this hideous?”

“Personally,” Jen said, “I quite adore the looks. Also the clip…”

“Magazine,” several people said at once, including Nari.

“Whatever,” Jen said, rolling her eyes. “I like it. I just want to empty it a bit faster. It would also be nice to do it one-handed. That means a slight recoil reduction and a decreased trigger pull.”

“Me too,” Cross said. “But don’t reduce the trigger pull too much, ok?”

“It isn’t a revolver or a bolt-action,” Oro said. “That’s probably why I don’t like it. It is very accurate for an automatic.”

After a few minutes of somewhat contradictory advice and several near-arguments from the first seven shooters, Nari finally said, “I think that’s enough for now.” She grabbed me by the arm. “Please, continue shooting. Meanwhile, the board will have a meeting.”

“Speaking of that,” Bai asked, “what is your company called?”

“Olympus,” May said. “Olympus Incorporated.”

When we got out, I said, “Pretty cool name. Did you come up with it, May?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m also thinking we should name the divisions differently. You and Nari get the weaponry division, Mars Arsenal. You’ll also have a split between thirty percent of the profits of Mars Arsenal. How does that sound?”

“Pretty good,” I said. “What’s your division called?”

“I’ve got Hephaestus Industrial Solutions,” Andy said. “May has Caduceus Medical. Speaking of Caduceus, wanna tell them the good news?”

“Sure,” May said. “Basically, the changes to the student invention policy means I can get a grant from The President. Plus, his contacts are railroading Power Sludge and my surgical glue through the FDA. If things go as planned, Andy and I might be leaving the school in a few weeks. We even a site picked out in Massachusetts.”

“You don’t sound very happy,” Nari said.

May sighed. “There’s an FBI contest. Apparently, .40 S&W isn’t cutting it for dealing with Parahumans and criminals armed with advanced tech.”

“And?” Nari asked. “Isn’t that not a good thing?”

May took a deep breath. “Weapons entered in this kind of competition tend to sell very well with civilians…”

“Which is what we want, correct?” Nari said. “These weapons are deliberately designed to defeat The Dragon’s Teeth. If they invade, we want as many people armed with these as possible.”

May exploded. “And what do you think people are going to be doing with them in the meantime?” Nari flinched, but May continued.  “Yeah, sure, we’ll get rich, selling weapons to people like Cross and Jennifer as well as the cops, then selling medical supplies when they’re done killing each other. But people will still be killing each other before The Dragon’s Teeth show up. I don’t want to be responsible for that!”

Suddenly, May stopped, realizing that Nari was starting to tear up. “I’m sorry,” May said hurriedly, “I didn’t mean…”

“The Dragon’s Teeth,” Nari said, straining to speak through her tears, “are massacring everyone in my country. I don’t want to be responsible for them to do the same to another country. Whatever Cross and Jennifer and people like them are capable of is a rounding error compared to what I’ve seen from those monsters.” She then began to walk off. “I’m going to the bathroom. I’ll be back.”

“Well,” May said after Nari was out of sight, “not only am I a hypocrite, I guess I’m also a complete bitch.” She began to walk away. “I’m going back to my dorm. When Nari comes back, tell her I’m sorry.”

 

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Track 8: Future So Bright

Things quickly settled back into a routine. Like an idiot, I had decided to get as many of the tough classes I would absolutely hate out of the way this semester as I possibly could and not go insane. That was physics, chemistry, and calculus. Anything more, and I’d go insane. I also had English II, because it was required, and over the summer, I had managed to get Computer Aided Design I and a course called Weaponsmithing: AKs and ARs included as well.

The reason for the last two was because I had an extracurricular activity I needed to do. Those Dragon’s Teeth were already way too far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of tech. The only problem was that their basic infantry weapons sucked. So, in my spare time, I was going to design a weapon that would be competitive with the Pilum assault rifle, maybe throw in a few other kinds as well.

The problem with this idea was time. Not only was I taking six really hard classes, but I was also tending bar four nights a week and had decided to do my radio show with Andy again. Functionally, that only left the weekend to design, prototype and test a range of modern weaponry with new ammunition designed to compete with something that was twenty years ahead of every weapon made on Earth. And the person making it would never have designed a gun before.

Needless to say, I hadn’t really thought this through enough. The one thing I did do right was decide to make the ammo first. That mean figuring out what the hell was in the bullets I had recovered. That meant getting them to May.

I met her the Sunday before class started. It was supper (which gave me ample time to recover from my hangover,) and we met at Sun Tzu. “Any particular reason you wanted to meet here?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, setting her stir-fry down at the table we had chosen. “I wanted an excuse not to eat in a place where nutritionists go to fight.”

“Sounds fun,” I said.

May shot me a withering look. “It’s not,” she said. “It feels like the menu changes every day, usually either to some completely artificial meal to entirely fruits and vegetables with no regard for the other three food groups.” She pointed to her stir-fry and glass of milk. “I need protein, I need grain, and I need sweets. This place has that in healthy portions. That’s not to say artificial ingredients, fruits and veggies are inherently evil. A girl just needs a little more than that. I also need the other food groups and food that tastes good. I admit, when I made Power Sludge, I didn’t take any of that into account, but I see that more as proving my point seeing as how miserable it made my life. But there were worse things I could do, y’know? I could have forced my new wonder diet on everyone because I’m perfect and can do no wrong just like that dumbass Ulrich! Or I could be like Tiffany Parker and throw a fit every time something other than joyless new-age crap… excuse me, ‘organize protests over Paleo-uncompliant meals.’ God, Paleolithic diets are the most…”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, sensing that May was going to go into one of her signature rants, “but I was wondering if you could help me analyze these.” I held a box. Inside was the bullets I had collected in North Korea and a note explaining how to open them and what I wanted them tested for.

“I guess,” May said. From the look of it, she didn’t seem exactly thrilled by the idea of helping me make a weapon.

“It’s going to a good cause,” I said.

“Yeah,” May said, “and so was the Gatling gun. Why do you need to fight… them? Because it sounds like more lives could be saved just by surrendering.”

I paused, considering my words carefully. “When I was… away,” I finally said, “I saw only one civilian. There was also only one surviving soldier, but his mind was so damaged by chemical weapons, I’m not sure if he counts as a survivor. Apart from soldiers on both sides and that one civilian, there were no signs of survivors.”

May gravely considered this horrifying news for a few seconds, then said, “Fine. But this does not end up on the civilian market, got me?” As she said this, she grudgingly put the package in her purse.

“I’ll delay it as long as I can,” I said.

We ate in silence, pursuing small talk for a bit. Suddenly, we were interrupted. “Hello, my friends!” boomed a voice with a strange accent. I looked up. There, standing next to our table, carrying their food, were two men I knew only as Eric the Entertainer and The Monk.

“Eric! Monk!” I said happily. “How’re you two doing? And where are the rest of you guys?” Eric and The Monk were two African child soldiers I had met in Hell Semester. They were part of a group of child soldiers that had some vague adventures. Eric was the leader and heavy machinegunner. The Monk was designated marksman and the calmest human being I know. MC Disaster was a reclusive demolitions expert who rarely spoke. Ray-Gun was an excitable sci-fi nerd who usually spotted for The Monk. Doc was the somewhat crotchety doctor.

It would be very hard not to look at any of them and not guess their history. Between their accents and skin tone (The Monk had the lightest, with dark brown skin) it would be very easy to tell they were from Africa. Their height and build suggested constant malnutrition, with only The Monk and Ray-Gun being around the height of an average American. However, their most striking shared feature, at least to me, was their shared predatory poise. These were people who had been killing since before I could read.

They had also really helped me during those first few months of school. For that, John and I both owed all five of them a hell of a lot.

“We,” Eric said, sitting down, “are doing fine. Also, we’re… enjoying hanging out with different people on occasion.”

“Ray-Gun is watching every single episode of Ultimate Spider-Man,” The Monk said, “MC Disaster is listening to those CDs May loaned me,” he turned to May to quickly add, “by the way, thank you for those. I particularly liked Fearless. If you want them back…”

“If like it,” May said, “you can keep all of them, except for K.O.D. I got that signed by Krizz Kaliko and Tech N9ne.”

“What about that one signed by Justin…”

“Keep it!” May shouted. “Please! Dad got me so many embarrassing CDs. I wanted K.O.D, he’d get me My World 2.0. I ask for The Rose That Grew From Concrete, he’d get me Up All Night. Ugh! It was so annoying!”

“Where’s Doc?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” May said. “Thanks for reminding me, Nate. Where is Doc? I heard he did pretty well over summer semester in a few of his med classes.”

“Cross got in this morning,” The Monk said. Michael “Cross” Castellan was a son of a New York mafia hitman. He also was the kind of guy you never would suspect of being gay… until he got drunk and started feeling up dudes and talking about sleeping with Triad bosses. “He and Doc are having… quality time.”

“By ‘quality time’” Eric said, “we mean butt fucking.” From the way he said it, I could tell he was trying to gross May out.

It flew right over May’s head. “Speaking of long-distance relationships,” she said to me, “how are you and Eliza doing?”

“We actually haven’t talked since yesterday,” I said. “She said something about having to cancel her meeting with me today.”

“I see,” May said with a disturbing flatness.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “She’s just busy, that’s all.” May, meanwhile, just nodded.

The rest of the meal was fine enough. I left early, smartly realizing that this night would be the last chance I had at a full night’s sleep and freedom to do whatever. May was able to talk me into doing a study group that she was setting up, something to do with wanting to help “idiot sophomores who’d bitten off more than they could chew.” Despite getting the impression that she had just had the idea a few seconds ago, I accepted.

That turned out to be a very good idea. As soon as class started, I quickly realized my mistake. Everything was hard.

The CAD class, for instance, assumed you had used something similar before. There were three things that saved me that first class. The first is that I had spent the portion of Sunday I hadn’t been hungover playing around with the CAD software and reading the book. The second was that I had touched on CAD programs as part of the Maynard Public Schools curriculum and my misguided quest to become a game designer. The third thing was that Nari was sitting right beside me. By the end of the class, we were all able to create a plastic, spring-loaded… thing.

The most interesting thing about that first class (not that it was boring, quite the opposite in fact,) was an announcement at the end. “Now being in this program allows you certain privileges,” she said. “During this course, and upon passing it, you will have a set ration of plastic and cardboard for 3D-printing at your discretion.”

Plastic and cardboard. Damn. I couldn’t make a gun out that. I was so busy worrying about how I’d get some actual materials that I almost missed what the instructor said next.

“If you feel like you need better materials,” the instructor continued on, “you may ask your student advisor to sign off on the materials.” I smiled. Suddenly, I had a way to make a gun. It all depended on Kreiger.

Physics, chemistry, calculus and English were also shaping up to be hellish. The bright side was that the chemistry classroom had a similar deal: you could access a variety of compounds and elements, and more if your advisor authorized it.

However, the best class was the armory class. As soon as I got in, the teacher said the most beautiful words I had ever heard all week. “Hey y’all,” he said, “I’m Don Haliburton. Now, this is the first day and we’ve got plenty of time, so I’m gonna take it slow for a few sessions.”

It was Friday. The only thing any of us had been hearing was “You guys! The semester only has twelve weeks! We need to hurry!” I swear, as soon as we heard this, the entire room had to suppress a cheer. I turned to look at Doc and Cross. All three of us had huge grins on our faces.

When Professor Haliburton was done with the lecture and had us start work on stripping some weapons, Nari said, “Honestly, I am somewhat sad. I would like to have been challenged.”

“Wait,” Cross said, his tanned face wrinkling in confusion, “aren’t you like, ten, or something?”

“You’re off by about a week, sir,” Nari said, a blank expression on her face. “My birthday is on Saturday.” From what I knew about her, that look and tone of voice indicated either contempt or annoyance, tinged with a fear that contempt or annoyance would get her disappeared. It wasn’t an unreasonable fear, either back in North Korea or at NIU.

“But you’re in college…” Cross said, somewhat stunned.

“You’re in college,” Nari said, “and yet somehow you got a C in Algebra last semester.” She suddenly went white with horror, realizing she had just insulted a Hell Semester graduate who had just finished re-assembling an AK.

“Oooooh,” Doc said. “She got you, man!”

“Shut up,” Cross said. “I got honors in high school!”

“This isn’t high school,” Doc said in a sing-song voice.

“Oh yeah,” Cross asked. “What’d you get in English again, genius?”

“Cross got a C! Cross got a C! C is for Cross, that’s good enough for he!”

“Oh yeah?” Cross asked, elbowing Doc (unadvisable, seeing as Doc was holding an M-16A4.) “This is from the guy who got a D in English and a D up the butt!”

“Guys,” I said, “not in front of the mini-person, ok?”

“Are…” Nari asked, now even more concerned, “…Are they… homosexuals?”

“Nah,” Cross said, “we just like sucking each other’s dicks.”

“Hey! Lovebirds!” Professor Haliburton shouted from across the room. “Am I gonna have to put you two in separate pre-schools?” Professor Haliburton was an older man, with a bit of a paunch, but he had been in Special Forces. Plus, he was faculty. You had to be an idiot to disrespect him.

“No, sir,” Cross and Doc said in unison. Professor Haliburton glared at them for a few seconds. After what felt like an eternity, he moved on.

A few seconds later, Cross said, “So, Doc’s group is going to watch the run-down of the Fresh Meat. We’re also inviting a few others, too. You want to come, Nate?”

“Can’t make it,” I said, looking up from my sketch of an AK-107 counterbalancing mechanism. “I’m going to be doing overtime at The Drunken Mercenary. Apparently, anything to do with Hell Semester, soccer…”

“You mean football,” Doc corrected.

“…and the last few days of finals are the busiest days for the bar and all hands have to be on deck.” I shook my head. “Sorry guys.”

After class was finally over, I was one of the last to leave. I had gotten the actual assignment done extremely quickly and had spent the rest of class examining the counterbalance mechanisms of the AK-107 and AEK-971. From what I understood, their design was both more effective and simpler than the Pilum. All I’d have to do was copy the design, and I’d have a better weapon. The future was looking bright, if only for my designs.

I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice that Nari had been watching me take notes the entire class.

 

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Track 10: Party at the Nerdy Colony

The bathroom was near the lobby. That’s how they found me. Andy had just walked in and May was waiting in line for the cafeteria. Andy waved and began walking towards me. May did too, but there was a lot more bouncing involved.

“Hey guys!” I said, “Glad you got the memo about where we’d meet!”

“Not a problem,” May said. “Mary couldn’t make it tonight, she’s got other engagements.” She turned around to come face to face with Andy. Well, actually, it was more like face to solar plexus. “Uh,” she asked, “who’s this guy?”

“He’s Andy Sebaldi,” I said. “He’s…”

“Ohmigod,” May said, “I totally know who you are! You’re the guy who turned his room into a factory! I could never, in a million years, do anything like that. By the way, what are you planning on making?”

“Eh… school administration wants to see if I can make robots,” Andy said. “I’ve got some ideas for automated security and robots that can walk.”

“Can you make chemicals?” May asked. “Because NIU are trying to buy the rights to the stuff I made. Also, if I can’t ‘put it into effect under my own power within two years,’ the rights go to the school.”

“How do you know who I…” Andy began to ask, then his face lit up. “Wait a minute, you’re May Riley! You’re one of the Triple-As in the Med program! Yeah, I might be able to do that. I’d need to know how to mix the stuff but I take it can tell me what I’d need to do, right? By the way, how did you know about me?”

We paused to swipe our student IDs at the entry. A bored guy I had seen occasionally exiting Squire was manning them, and didn’t seem to notice our entrance. I wondered if I could have just walked past. After all, his swiping our card was just as automatic as our handing it to him.

Andy and May were still involved in their own conversation. “I know who you are because I read the school newspaper,” May said. “When Taylor Smith isn’t spewing his hateful bullshit, there actually is the occasionally interesting and/or useful article.”

“I actually heard about you from some guys I know on campus,” he said. “Something about medical genius, severe injuries, and weird porn you didn’t know you were filming.”

“Oh God,” May groaned, “Why won’t that video die?”

Trying to butt in, I asked, “Who’s Taylor Smith?” Judging by the impression he left on May, there was a strong chance that he was the person Kyle and Richard were talking about appeasing.

May sighed. “Smith’s this fucking asshat who writes articles in the NIU Universal complaining about anyone who isn’t white and Protestant. He also keeps talking about ‘the grand rebirth of Rhodesia,’ which basically means killing and enslaving the people of Zimbabwe. Anyway, he wrote this long screed about how Asian people were genetically inferior to white people (he used less polite terms,) and I posted a comment disproving every single one of his talking points. I may have been a bit rude, but he decided to basically go nuclear in his response to my response, saying that this is why women shouldn’t be involved in politics and wondering about whether it was my period or if I was just mentally deficient.” She smiled. “I suppose I shouldn’t have responded to his response, but telling him to go back to writing songs about kissing boys in the rain felt… so poetic. It was almost worth the threats.”

“Wait,” Andy asked, “what kind of threats?”

“Oh, look!” May said, “That’s where we’re sitting! Come on!” Near the window, I could see that Eric, Doc, Ray-Gun, The Monk, MC Disaster, Eliza, Bai, Charlotte, Jen, Cross, and John were all sitting at one of the longer tables. Ray-Gun, John, Eliza, and Cross were waving us over. Outside I could see that it was snowing like crazy.

“Wow,” I said as we sat down, “this is crazy. There’s fourteen people sitting down here.”

“Yeah,” Cross said. “We had to get the Jesus table because there’s still more people coming. Oro and Eliza’s other roomie are coming, too.”

“Oh,” I said, “before I forget, let me introduce you guys. Ok, Andy, May, this first guy is Eric the Entertainer. He likes to make nicknames.”

Eric nodded. “A pleasure to meet you two.”

“This next guy is Ray-Gun. He’s an excellent spotter. Also really likes Silver Age superhero comics.” Ray-Gun smiled, his frizzy Afro shaking a bit as he nodded his head. “And this guy’s Doc. He’s a little prickly, but he’ll fix you up if you get shot.”

“Not as good as May,” Doc said. “Your inventions saved a lot of lives.”

“I wouldn’t play favorites,” I said, “but I was probably one of them. Salim, this one asshole from Al-Qaeda, stabbed me in the stomach. Your surgical glue had me doing the run the next day.” Ignoring May’s protests, I continued with the introductions. “MC Disaster. Explosives expert. Doesn’t talk much.”

“I talk!” MC Disaster protested.

“That’s the first thing I’ve heard him since November. Anyway, this guy is The Monk, chillest guy I know.” The Monk made his traditional bow. “Michael Castellan. Everyone calls him Cross. Don’t ask about his family business.”

“Hey, man,” Cross said, “Don’t scare away my clients! They’re nerds! Nerds always want some jock whacked.” I noticed Andy and May’s eyes widen. They exchanged nervous glances.

“He’s joking, right?” Andy asked anxiously. I could see the scenarios he was imagining. They all involved the FBI knocking on his door.

“Possibly,” I said, “but not about the killing people for money thing. Moving on, the redhead with the cool ears is Eliza Henderson and the blonde girl with the Union Jack scarf is her adopted sister, Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward. Charlotte’s English nobility of some kind.”

“Charmed,” Charlotte said.

“Nice t’meet ya!” Eliza said at the same time.

“Man,” I said, “do I know a lot of people here. Ok, home stretch! The girl who looks perpetually amused is Jennifer Kagemoto. She’s a little… famous where I live.”

“For all the wrong reasons,” Jen said playfully. “Cross is nowhere near as bad as I am.”

“And the girl openly carrying a Glock is Bai Feng,” I said. Bai was carrying her G26 in an armpit holster. Her coat and sweater had been taken off and hung over her chair, revealing the gun, holster and plain tank top she wore. Not only did this violate school rules about only carrying concealed weapons, but it also made me nervous.

“After what happened at Weapons Handling,” Bai said coolly, “I thought having a deterrent would be prudent. I thought you’d understand better, seeing how that wasn’t the first time you’ve been caught off-guard.”

“What happened?” Andy asked, looking more and more unnerved by his present company. So was May.

“Nothing,” I said, with a little too much false cheer, “just assholes being assholes!” May and Andy exchanged worried glances. Again. “Anyway,” I said, “this is John Marshall. One of the two people who had no idea what the fuck he was getting into. Out of all the people, I think the only person to save my life more is Eliza.”

“That’s me!” John said. I noticed he was sitting directly across from Bai. He was also marginally more comfortable with her than the last time I had seen them together.

“Ok,” I said, “now, is there anyone who doesn’t know May?”

“Be polite and introduce us to her anyway, Nathan,” Charlotte said.

“Ok,” I said, “this is May Riley. She’s a Triple-A at the med school. If you were in Hell Semester 2015, she probably saved your butt directly or indirectly.” There was a round of applause. May blushed a bit. “And this is my co-host for Flounder, Andy Sebaldi. He’s a Triple-A Computer Science major.”

“Basically,” he said, “they kind of want me to build Skynet.”

“Please tell me you’re joking,” John said, somewhat terrified.

“I am,” Andy said, “that’s the only way I’m able to deal with the fact that they want me to build fucking Skynet.” After that, it kind of devolved into a bitch session about how the school was morally bankrupt, expensive, dangerous, and difficult.

“I’ll say one thing,” I said after swallowing a bite of my third bratwurst, “I am learning a lot.” I got a minor chuckle from that.

Oro and Alma eventually showed up. Neither of them were talkative and both exuded a passive sense of menace. Oro Okoro, another child soldier from somewhere in Africa and member of the Seven Supreme, was actively suspicious of Andy for a few minutes, but finally relented.

Alma, on the other hand, simply took an interest and did her best to appear non-threatening. However, Alma being mildly interested and trying not to be threatening was like a horror movie building up to the scares. There was just something wrong with her. I tried to tell myself that it was just the idea of her power or her weird monotone, but something told me it went deeper than that. I decided not to focus on that.

Instead, I focused on the camaraderie. Eliza was one of the people who vouched for Andy. (I was another, but she obviously didn’t trust me as much.) John ended up being the only person who had a prayer of keeping up with Andy and May’s conversation on how the brain could be used as a model for artificial intelligence. Cross was giving Charlotte advice on alternatives to her Webley. Things like that. I decided to just sit back and eat my food.

Finally, it was time to go. We all got a cup of the crappy hot chocolate the cafeteria and began the trek to building Graham’s Game Bar was located. Luckily, it was pretty close to the main circle. We only had to walk through winds that felt like being constantly punched for about five minutes.

“HOW DO PEOPLE LIVE WITH THIS WEATHER?” Oro yelled above the wind. “I LIVE IN A COUNTRY WITH AN AVERAGE LOWEST YEARLY TEMPERATURE OF THIRTY DEGREES!” I quickly realized she was measuring in Celsius. Why does America use English measurements again? Not even England uses English measurements.

“THEY KEEP A STIFF UPPER LIP, I SUPPOSE,” Charlotte mused loudly. “REMARKABLY BRITISH OF THEM!”

Finally, we got into Graham’s Game Bar. It was located in an apartment-style building called Lovelace Hall. “Blimey,” Eliza said, when we all got into the foyer, “It really is nerd heaven, innit?”

The bar was double-storied. Downstairs was a dancefloor (which most people were ignoring,) a bar (which was only slightly busier,) and a bunch of arcade cabinets and pinball machines. I saw some classics like Star Wars: The Arcade Games, Pac-Man, and most of the Time Crisis series. They all seemed to have been modified to take campus credits.

Upstairs, I could see that there was another bar and an area for people who wanted to join in a LAN party. TVs scattered around were displaying various matches. To top it all off, the DJ was playing the original Pokemon theme.

“This is heaven…” I said, somewhat in awe.

“Yeah,” May said as we wandered further in. “Each of the schools has at least one hangout. You AMS and Shadowhaven guys have The Drunken Mercenary and The Gunporioum. The students at the Frankenstein Medical School get hammered at the A&E and cure the hangover with caffeinated beverages at Greenleaf. Rogues have Café Charlemagne and The International Casino. The CompSci guys get The Nerd Shop and this place. Lucky bastards.”

“Hey,” Eliza said, “wanna see if they’ve got bourbon? I’ve never had any before.”

“I will watch you drink it,” Bai said. “But I think I’ll pass.”

“Fine, you pansy,” Eliza said. “Nate, John, you want t’sample some Yank culture with me? Could be quite educational.”

“You know what?” I said. “Sure. What could go wrong?”

We walked over to the bar. A red-headed girl in a Graham’s Game Bar branded apron was tending a somewhat abandoned section. “What’ll ya be havin,’ ya bleedin’ Monarchist?” she asked with a bored Irish lilt. My guess is that she noticed the Union Jack patch on Eliza’s old army jacket.

Eliza smiled, slapping her student ID on the counter. “Three shots of your mid-range bourbon on the rocks for me and my mates, Lucky Charms.” I noticed that a crowd had begun to form around. Most of them were our friends, but there were a few curious nerds.

The bartender asked, with mock-innocence, “You sure you want to be going that fast? You sure you don’t want some nice non-alcoholic beer? Or some milk?” There was an “oooh!” from the crowd. I, on the other hand, got the impression that this was as fake as professional wrestling. Mostly due to the fact that both of them were trying to suppress smiles.

“Did I ask for commentary?” Eliza asked, “Or did I ask you TO POUR THE BOOZE?” As she asked the last question, she turned to address the crowd. A person actually whooped.

“Fine, ya cockney arse,” the bartender said. “Three shots of inferior American rotgut for the Englishwoman.” She quickly swiped the card and poured the whiskey. The shot glasses looked bigger than I expected.

I picked mine up, and sniffed it. It smelled like paint thinner. “Right,” Eliza said, “on three. One. Two. Three.”

In unison, we all lifted it up to our mouths and took a sip. I don’t know how I managed to do it, but I got some in. Each drop seared my throat on the way down. “Oh God,” I said, “This burns.”

“Yeah,” Eliza said, “You’d have to be propper wasted beforehand to drink this.” After a pause, she said, “I’m going to finish it.”

A few minutes later, we were on the upper floor. I had finished a good chunk of it, and, God help me, I somehow decided I liked it. I don’t know why. The only reasonable explanation I could think of was that I subconsciously hated myself and realized that this devil drink was killing me. That, or I liked how being buzzed made me almost forget Hell Semester. It also helped me to deal with the fact that some people playing Counter-Strike were using speakers.

Suddenly, through the light fog in my head, I realized something. “Hey Andy,” I asked, “If I wanted to find out more about someone, could I just look it up on cNet?”

Andy looked up from the glass-bottle soda he was drinking. “Sure,” he said. “People have all sorts of stuff on their default profile. What majors they take, some brief tidbits why they were selected, stuff like that. Why?”

I smiled. It must have seemed a little terrifying because Andy flinched. “Oh,” I said, “just an extra-curricular project I have…”

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