Track 23:Is It Just Me?

I don’t really remember what I said about my time fighting the Dragon’s Teeth. I just remember that nobody’s expression changed. I’ll admit, I was just dryly presenting the facts of my visit to Korea and some of their attempts after, but still, the facts should have been pretty riveting. I didn’t know why they were staring at me until one of the mobsters, an elderly man in a suit that was probably expensive, raised his hand.

“So,” he asked in a Boston accent when I called him, “you just go on a stroll to North Korea?”

“As I said,” I mentioned, “I was paid.”

“But you didn’t say by who,” the mobster said. “I kinda wanna know.”

“Is it important?” I asked. “Because if you want to talk to him, he’s not available.” The mobster didn’t say anything in response, but he did tent his hands and stare at me suspiciously. I suddenly realized that he wasn’t the only one. “Look,” I said, in response to his unanswered question, “there’s just some things that are too big for you. Accept it and move on.”

People around the room murmured in a mixture of amusement and shock. Jen seemed to be trying to suppress a headache. Mai was writing in her notebook. Both their retinues seemed somewhat impressed. Valkyrie seemed… annoyed. “Kid,” the mobster said, “Do you, or your friends, know who the fuck I am?”

“I personally don’t,” I said. “But I can tell you right now, you’ll be a lot happier not asking questions about my life’s story.”

“Ok,” the mob boss said, standing up. “I guess I can deal without your guns.” He left. His retinue and several other representatives from other gangs followed.

Another man raised his hand. He was also dressed in a suit, but he seemed to be one of the guards. “So how do we know you ain’t a fed?” He asked. He also had a Boston accent.

“If I was a fed,” I said, “I’d be directing traffic.”

“Did Agent Barton tell you that, or did Agent Hicks?” the junior gangster asked. Instantly, a bunch of the assembled crooks began clamoring. Some walked out, some in more of a panic than others. Others began reaching for their waistbands. “Yeah, that’s right!” the junior gangster said. “Burnie McWheels over there’s been traveling cross-country with clean feds and is being sponsored by a clean cape!”

Valkyrie slammed her axe on the floor again, creating another gust of wind. Judging by the crack it made “Do you want to mouth off, or do you want to listen?” Valkyrie asked.

The room was silenced. The person the mouthy mobster was guarding, a positively ancient man, said, “I think what Junior is trying to say is that he’d like to leave before the cops come.”

“Then go,” Valkyrie said. “Unless things have radically changed, the cops aren’t coming, so you have all the time in the world.” The people who left, which was a good chunk, didn’t seem to believe her. Hell, even the few remaining didn’t seem that keen.

Once the people who were leaving were gone, one of the few remaining mobsters finally asked, “So, how do we know that you aren’t going to favor your two exes with the weapon distribution?”

I looked at Valkyrie for help. She rolled her eyes. “He’s the manufacturer. I’ll work out distribution with you at later.”

“Thank you,” I said. I did not want to know where these guns would end up. I definitely didn’t want to know what these people would do with them.

One of the only black people in the room raised his hands. When I nodded, he said, “So, y’all givin’ us guns, but those guys have fucking tanks and shit. I am not sending my boys into a meat grinder.”

I picked up the rifle Nari had made. “This,” I said, “is the Mjolnir. It fires a 10.4mm bullet. It’s a hybrid of long distance precision and anti-material rifle. It can probably penetrate five or six millimeters of seltsamemetall, which is probably what the Charon uses for armor.”

“And how many inches thick is their armor?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “the doors seem to be about four or five millimeters and the windows are pretty big so you can probably shatter them easily.” The gang leader raised his eyebrows. “The average body seems to be ten millimeters.”

“Yeah, we dead,” he said, rolling his eyes. But he didn’t leave.

Mai then raised her hand. “Yes, Mai?” I asked, a sinking feeling in my stomach.

“Well,” Mai said, “there are some people who can’t be trusted to act in good faith. What’s to stop them from making a move?”

Someone from the Kagemoto camp must have muttered something because Lang turned towards them and angrily asked, “The fuck you say?”

“Hey!” Valkyrie said as Kaori and Hirosama stepped in front of Lang. I noticed that Jaime and Bao were also moving in. “Do I need to separate you?”

“No ma’am,” Mai said calmly. “My people will behave.”

“So will mine,” Jen said sweetly, “but I have to wonder what Miss Lau’s definition of behave is. After all, a few weeks ago, her people were killing my people unprovoked.”

“Shit, girl,” Jaime said, “We had no idea which people were yours and which people were your dad’s. Think we did you a favor.”

“Oh really?” Hirosama asked. “Why, then, were some of Mark Kagemoto’s people given World War Two surplus? Why did some take to dressing in green?”

“Enough!” Valkyrie shouted.

“Guess they know what a winner looks like,” Jaime said with a smirk.

“I said-”

“Hey, Jaime,” Kaori asked, flames dancing from her fingers. “How’s your mother?”

“You fucking bi-” Jaime said, reaching for his waistband. I could see the cylindrical grip of a Broomhandle Mauser. Meanwhile, Hirosama was going for his Glock, Lang had his hand on a green polymer grip for a pistol, and Bao was pulling a sawed-off from seemingly out of nowhere.

“OI!” Eliza yelled, bringing up her Ballpeen, flicking off the safety, and turning on the laser in one smooth motion. “You fuckin’ pull a piece in ‘ere an’ I’ll pop you in your ‘ead, swear on me mum!”

“Eliza…” Jen said holding her hands up. I noticed she’d opened her shirt to reveal her two chrome Berettas.

“You know what?” the gang leader who’d asked how to deal with tanks said angrily, “Y’all should kick those motherfuckers outta here. The got Uzis, they got AKs, they got ARs, they got belt-fed shit. Hell, they even got capes. Meanwhile, my boys can barely scrape together some pistols and shotties. They don’t need any more shit.” The rest of the remaining criminals murmured in agreement.

“Listen, you little shits,” Jen said, “I don’t remember you having trouble a few weeks ago. Stop playing the underdog, and pay attention to what’s coming.” She stood up. “I don’t have to deal with this bullshit. The Kagemotos will guard their territory.” Her glare travelled around the room. “From everyone. Even if we have to throw rocks.” Before anyone could comment, she stormed out, her two bodyguards following close behind.

There was a moment of awkward silence. Mai stood up. “Nate,” she said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel like we can make a deal in this environment. If you would like to make a deal with competent people, you know where to contact us.” She smiled and walked out, her entourage pausing for posturing.


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Track 24: The End (Of the arc, not the serial)

Recovery was quicker than I expected. Within a few days all our external scars, scrapes and burns were fully healed, even John’s. The cracked ribs that Nari and I had suffered, however, would heal at the normal rate. “We could just seal it up with surgical glue,” a doctor explained, “but that would involve cutting you up. Unless you want to do the operation…”

“No need,” I said hurriedly. “It should be cleared up by the time I get back, right?”

At that point, my ribs had healed enough so that I could walk and talk. The problem, however, was standing up. Whenever I tried to use my core muscles, it felt like my chest was caught in a vice. In other words, it had improved a lot.

Eventually, everyone was out of the hospital and installed in the lodgings they would live at next semester. John and I got a double near the Sun Tzu campus center right across the hall from where Kyle was. Sunny and Nari, meanwhile, were staying at a small house near the docks. My parents weren’t expecting me back until three weeks after school ended, so that meant I had very little to do.

Meanwhile, the nightmares had come back and they were worse than ever. Every time I closed my eyes, I would see the people who had died around me from former teachers who had died of cancer to those I had killed.

Mostly, it was the ones I had killed. They chased me, hounded me, screamed and clawed at me, their bodies bearing the wounds that had ended their lives. The wounds I had inflicted.

They couldn’t end me the way I had ended them, and that enraged them. Instead, they surrounded me and listed off my crimes. I tried to ignore them and rationalize what I had done. Amir, the Al-Qaeda leader had tried to kill me. The people who had ambushed me at the Hell Semester final were sent by the school. Besides, I heard that they were rapists, weren’t they? And everything that happened in Korea, that was self-defense as well, wasn’t it?

Still, it rang hollow, especially considering the South Korean cops. I doubt it would be reasonable to place the blame entirely on the remnants of the recon team, but that had been a complete shit show. I didn’t go to North Korea to fight South Korean cops, but between mercs with itchy trigger fingers and overzealous cops, I had added another dozen people to my body count, none of whom deserved to die.

John got out of the hospital a week and a half before we were supposed to go home. To celebrate, Sunny had invited us over to her house. A former professor she had worked with had brought a kid over, so Nari was off having a sleepover while the adults, from what I understood, drank themselves silly.

“Welcome!” Sunny said as I wheeled John in. “I’m sorry if it’s a little bare-bones. I haven’t had much time to get it furnished.“ We were in a small living room with stairs leading upstairs, with the door directly in front of the staircase. The room itself had bare plaster walls, except for one section which Sunny and Nari apparently had started to paint. There were three couches, one of which was only half-assembled, and a box in a u-shape around a coffee table. They were facing a large TV and window. Apart from that, the only other decoration the room had was a locking bar.

“Not a problem,” I said, scanning the room for a place to put John. Eventually, I decided to just park him in front of the coffee table. That was, after all, where Sunny had put the food.

Apparently, apart from the main dining hall and the staff/faculty food co-op, the only food options you had were a pizza place or a Chinese place. Sunny had apparently gotten large orders from both.

In the grand tradition of take-out ordered by college students, it wasn’t great, but it was better than cafeteria food. Also, in accordance to collegiate tradition, was the monumental amount of alchohol available. After I, personally, had three slices of peperoni pizza, four skewers of beef teriyaki, several chicken wings and three shots of whiskey, Kyle made his announcement.

“Well,” he said, getting up, “I’d better be getting back to my room. I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“You’re what?” I asked. “I thought that…”

“You two,” Kyle said, indicating John and me, “are the ones keeping things secret from your family. My grandpa knows what I’m doing. I was only staying long enough to make sure John got out.”

“Well… see you when school starts, I guess,” I said.

Kyle paused for a moment, staring past us. Finally he said, “I might not be coming back.” He looked at our stunned faces. “What, you’re surprised? You guys are all smart people, you’ve seen what this place is like. I thought you’d take your first chance to get out.”

“I understand,” I admitted, “but I think I can actually use this knowledge to change things. I mean, seriously, what the hell else am I going to do? Make videogames? Flip fucking burgers?” I took a sip of my fourth whiskey. “Listen, there’s a world out there that needs saving. And we have been put in the right place to save it.”

Kyle looked at me sadly. “Look at you,” he said, shaking his head. “They fucking got to you, you dumbass. You might not work for them, now or fucking ever, but you’re drunk off your ass and thinking you’re Darth fucking Vader.” He staggered over to the door, possibly more drunk than I was. When he was about to leave, he said, “I hope you wake up before you hit rock bottom, Killer.”

With that, he walked out into the night. After the door slammed shut, I stared at it for a little while. John and I left soon after. Despite the argument, I had a refreshing, dreamless sleep. It was almost worth the pounding headache.

The rest of the week was uneventful. We’d occasionally see the summer students, including our friends Eric, Ray-Gun, MC Disaster, The Monk, and Doc. It was reasonably fun, but soon it was time to make the journey home.

As we stepped out the plane, I asked John, “You ready for this?” Two men with dark hair, glasses and suits were waiting by an equally dark car. They were our UNIX handlers, Agents Brosnan and Takashi. Our job was to give them the intel we had collected… and that The President had approved.

“I’m not sure…” John said. “Shouldn’t we…”

“If you want to,” I said, “go ahead.” He didn’t. He just stood there as Brosnan and Takashi walked over to us.

“You’re late,” Takashi said in annoyance. His Japanese accent was even stronger than usual, too. He must have been even more agitated than usual. “Four weeks late, in fact. Where have you been? And don’t say an internship. We know…”

“I hate to interrupt,” Brosnan said, in his crisp British accent, “but now is neither the time nor the place.” He ushered us to the car. “We’ll drop you off first at your agreed location, Mr. Jacobs.”

The car ride was mostly done in silence. I noticed, however, that Brosnan was checking the mirrors quite a bit. Something about his attitude indicated that he was spooked. I was annoyed. The third party I had contacted knew where we’d meet. They shouldn’t have been watching.

Eventually, we stopped at a parking lot near the Main Street of my town. The smells of the various restaurants permeated the air, despite the fact that it was too early for most of them to be open.

As Agent Brosnan closed the car door, he said, “This car was quite nice. However, it is rather odd how every single rental service at Logan Airport insisted we upgrade to a black Chrysler 300. Shame our mysterious benefactor couldn’t give us a red one.” His attitude and voice was completely casual, but you could tell he smelled a rat. In fact, his “stretching” seemed to be just an excuse to see if he could spot anyone staking us out. Seeing as we had parked right next to a lime green Cadillac Escalade (or as my mom calls them, Excessalades) with spinning rims, we were reasonably shielded from prying eyes.

“So,” Agent Takashi asked, “what, if anything, did you bring us?”

I smiled. Finally, I’d either confirm some allegations The President had leveled or I’d finally fulfil the job I went to NIU to do. “You know that situation in North Korea?” I asked, bringing up a thumb drive. “I was there.”

Agent Takashi kicked the side of the car in frustration. Agent Brosnan just shrugged. “That could be valuable, but it wasn’t exactly what we asked you for. In fact, I fail to see what it has to do with NIU, even tangentially.”

“Did you know that the Dragon’s Teeth are a clone army?” I asked. “A legitimate army, with air and vehicle support, based on highly advanced technology?”

“The clone part, yes,” Brosnan said casually, “but what it has to do with…”

“Seriously?” I asked. Suddenly, the plan was changing. Instead of selling UNIX out, I’d work with them to find out who made the Deets. They just had to pass one test. “Ok, let me break it down for you guys: the Deets have cloaking technology, battery-powered APCs, genetic engineering and maybe even the same teleportation tech the Grenzefrontier have. Where the hell else could you get a team of people with that kind of knowledge?”

“There could be many ways,” Agent Brosnan said. “After all, in this state, you do have a supervillain who makes planes that can turn into bipedal walkers.”

Around the word “turn,” Agent Takashi butted in. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “The point is, if you actually want to get paid, you should look into some actual student projects. I hear you know the creator of surgical glue and Power Sludge. Getting those formulas would be helpful.”

So that was how it was going to be. Fine, I could deal. I was prepared. All that had happened was that I had confirmed what The President had said. We weren’t supposed to be looking for Force Three threats or whatever bullshit we had been sold. Instead, if we weren’t supposed to die during Hell Semester, we were supposed to be stealing tech secrets.

I could let that go. John apparently couldn’t. “So,” he said, his voice barely containing his rage, “we’re supposed to steal tech from people just trying to get through school so you don’t have to pay for it later?”

“It would be better than doing amateur missions to places that don’t concern you,” Agent Takashi said, snatching the flash drive out of my hand. “Honestly, I fail to see how your pathetic little field trip could have…”

That pissed me off. The cold rage that had been simmering inside me since I had seen the officious assholes broke. I slammed my fist as hard as I could into Takashi’s arrogant face.

The satisfaction of hurting the piece of shit was short-lived. In a blink, my head slammed back into the Escalade’s mid-side window, a hand grasped tight around my neck and the barrel of a pistol pushed right into my eye. From the other side of the car, John’s eyes widened.

“You just assaulted a UNIX officer,” Takashi almost whispered. “Give me one reason I shouldn’t pull the trigger.”

“Can I give a few reasons why you shouldn’t pop my boy?” We all turned to see the source of the voice. There, in the middle of a group of young people in green, was my old classmate from the Maynard Public School System, Jaime Washington. He looked the same as when I last saw him: slightly shorter than me, brown skin, brown eyes, and curly black hair.

Right behind him was another person I was familiar with. Lang was a lean, wolf-like man with a predatory gleam in his eye. I had met him at what essentially was a party for the Massachusetts underworld. Cross, who was the kind of person who knew these things, identified him as one of the top people in a brutal gang called The Jade Empire. On the other side of Jaime was a woman who looked like a gender-swapped version of Lang. These twins were taking everything in casually. They were professionals like me.

The others, including Jaime, were not. They were overconfident thugs who didn’t seem to know what they were facing. They just seemed to know they outnumbered the opposition. Oddly enough, except for the fact that they were all young men wearing green, they were very diverse. A few were Asian, a few were Latino, a few were black, and a few were white. All were dressed like wannabe gangsters or wannabe rappers.

“You… know him?” Agent Brosnan asked.

“I went to high school with him,” Jaime said. “I ain’t about to let him get shot by some flexing cops. Especially ones with no authority.”

At this point, Agent Brosnan realized how many of his impromptu audience was reaching at their waistbands. He reached into his waistband. Instantly there was the sound of guns being drawn and cocked. I couldn’t see most of them, due to Agent Brosnan’s back being in the way. However, I could see that most were cheap pistols… except for the one guy who had brought a TEC-9.

“Are those legal?” Agent Brosnan asked.

“More legal than a UNIX agent abducting a US citizen on US soil,” Lang said, his Chinese accent apparent. I noticed Lang, his sister, and Jaime hadn’t drawn any weapons. Takashi protested, but Lang cut him off. “I know my country’s laws. UNIX can’t make arrests. Even if you did, you just used excessive force. If you pay for damages to my… employee’s car, we can forget all about this.”

“Go to hell,” Agent Takashi snarled. “I’m taking this ungrateful little shit…”

“Agent Takashi,” Agent Brosnan said sharply, “you are a hairs breadth from causing an international incident in a sensitive country. Control yourself.” The grip around my throat released, and the pistol removed itself from my eye. Despite my burning chest and my throbbing head, I didn’t give Takashi the pleasure of watching me slump to the ground.

Agent Brosnan, meanwhile, offered something to Jaime. “I apologize for my partner. Mr. Jacobs just got… emotional about losing his scholarship. In turn, Agent Takashi got emotional about being assaulted. I hope this is enough.”

Jaime looked at Lang. Lang said, “It should be enough.” He waved them away. “You may leave.” Agent Takashi looked like he might pull his pistol again, but he walked around to the passenger side of the car. Before the car could start, Lang suddenly said, “Oh, just one more thing!”

Agent Brosnan looked up. “Yes?” he asked.

“UNIX can have the rest of the world, for now.” Lang said, his friendly tone masking a threat. “But Mass? Especially this little corner of it? This is ours. Consider yourself Persona Non-Grata in Maynard from now on.”

“Shame,” Agent Brosnan said conversationally. “I really liked the pubs here.” He closed the door of his rental car and drove off.

After they were gone, John and Jaime both hurried over to me. Lang and his sister hung back, watching us. The rest of the cavalry began celebrating and bragging. “You ok?” Jaime asked. “You fucking destroyed that shatterproof window, man.”

“His eyes don’t seem dilated,” John said.

“I’m going to kill that asshole,” I growled. “I fucking bled for him and calls me an amateur. Motherfucker.”

“Yep, he’s fine,” John said, rolling his eyes. “I’ll help him get home.”

“You sure?” Jaime asked. “I got a ride.” He patted the green monstrosity on its chrome piping. I like green, even lime green, but on an Escalade? Especially one with all that chrome? It was an automotive and aesthetic monstrosity.

I considered it, but John shook his head. “I’ll catch up with you later, man,” I said, picking up my backpack. Luckily, I had brought it and my suitcase out of the car with me. Otherwise, I doubted I’d have ever seen it again.

“Well,” Jaime said, “I’ll catch up with you. Facebook me or something, a’ight, Nate?”

When we had finally gotten away, John suddenly asked, “Hey, Nate,” he asked, “did you notice what kind of pistol Takashi was using?”

“Sorry,” I said, “it was kind of covering my eye. Why do you ask?”

“It was an M&P,” John said. “Know anyone else we’ve seen recently who’s used one?”

I was about to say no, then I remembered. The mystery people we had met and killed in North Korea. I considered this. “Well,” I said, “I guess we weren’t as amateur as they thought, were we?”

John sighed. “You’ve seriously ran out of fucks, haven’t you?”

I hadn’t. Time would prove that, but at that moment, I wasn’t exactly about to mourn the deaths of UNIX Agents who had fired on me. Mentally, I added the entire organization to my hit list and began to consider just what I was going to tell my parents.


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Volume 3 is dead. We killed it. Here is the Post Mortem.