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 22: Slippery People

“So,” Eliza said as we stood outside the brick perimeter wall to the factory, “is this really going to kill us if we don’t put in the correct codes?”

“According to Andy,” I said, “that’s an option that he doesn’t think is on. We didn’t want people taking things that didn’t belong to them and Andy wanted to test out some autonomous defenses. We honestly didn’t think something this bad would happen, but we decided what the hell. Have multiple layers of security in case of apocalypse. Right now, though, the shaped charges aren’t active, so all that should happen is the cops get called.”

“But you aren’t a hundred percent sure,” Eliza said.

“No, I’m not.” Between that knowledge and my painkillers wearing off, my hands were shaking as I typed in the code. “Hey, hey!” I said as there was a buzzing sound that cause Eliza to jump. “First try!”

The door opened to reveal a long hallway. Mounted on the ceiling was our prototype machinegun set into a prototype automated mount. “Fuckin’ ‘ell, Nate,” Eliza said as she pushed me in my wheelchair down the hall, “Please tell me the damn thing’s human-controlled.”

“Well,” I said, “with Andy, May, and Nari out of the country, and with most of our staff being former military and law enforcement people who signed back up, we couldn’t really have them be remote controlled. Don’t worry, that one isn’t on at this level.”

“Great.” Eliza said. “It’s so nice t’know that at least one death trap isn’t functional.” I decided, at that point, not to tell her about the auto-turret behind us. Or the claymores and C-4 built into the walls. Or the Punji sticks in the grates below us. Only the turret was active anyway.

Before the door swung shut, we heard a soft thump. Eliza turned around. “Oi,” she said. “I think Valkyrie’s ‘ere.”

“Let here in,” I said. “It’ll be good to talk to her before the others get here.”

Eliza mad a grunt of affirmation and opened the door. “Thanks,” I heard Valkyrie say. “I’ve heard things that make me… hesitant about just barging in here.”

“Yeah,” I said, “probably for the best. Let’s just get in so I can set the security to a more appropriate level.”

“Just so you know,” Valkyrie said, walking besides us, “there are several dead Dragon’s Teeth soldiers in the courtyard around the building.”

“I thought they might try and infiltrate the building,” I said. “After all, they did make several attempts to catch me. I think they might want me and one of my engineering partners because we can make better weapons than they can.” Valkyrie raised an eyebrow. “Really,” I said. “They can’t make rifles for shit. Vehicles are a different story. There’s other reasons, but I’m not going to get into them.”

“Maybe we should get the bodies out of the way,” Eliza said.

“Let’s turn off the turrets first,” I said. “Those things are set to motion and they can’t really tell the difference between good guys and innocent bystanders yet.”

“Why are they in a city of almost two hundred thousand?” Valkyrie asked.

“They’re facing inwards,” I said defensively.

“I swear,” Valkyrie said, “one of these days, I’m going to be here to give you an ass whooping.”

“‘E means well,” Eliza said.

“That’s what makes it so frustrating,” Valkyrie said. “With people like Minute Man, you expect them to be pieces of shit-”

“Wait,” I said, “Minute Man’s a piece of shit?” Minute Man was a hero who’d been in the cape scene since the eighties. He’d been the leader of the group by the same name and done the whole save kittens in tree and kiss babies thing for the entire time.

“Yes,” Valkyrie said. “You just have to look for it. Of course, the fucker’s gone to Canada, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. But he’s a piece of shit, and only in it for himself. What’s frustrating are the people who are doing awful shit for others, or seem like they want to be good but it never works out.”

I considered her words as I began to fiddle with the security systems. I wondered if she was, other than me, she was referring to anyone I knew. Eventually, I got the systems tuned to an acceptable level (and discovered that most of the active turrets were out) and Valkyrie was able to fly the bodies to an Army command outpost nearby for disposal and analysis.

When she came back, I said, “So, how are we going to control the murderous criminals once they get their highly advanced firearms? I mean, I think this could be a good idea, but we have to take into consideration that they might be more interested in killing each other or in intimidating civillians than killing Dragon’s Teeth.”

“Could you put in some way of disabling them?” Valkyrie asked.

“No,” I said. “There’s a whole litany of reasons. Like if I could turn off the guns, so could the Dragon’s Teeth, for starters. Or I, or whoever I get to design this magic switch, could make it so that the gun accidentally turns off in the middle of a firefight. In any case, putting in a backdoor or remote off switch defeats the purpose. There’s also how long it would take to design and retool the factory, which is actually something I can’t do unless I get Andy back here. Whatever solution we come up with, it has to be social or political. Either that, or we have to decide that the worst thing they could possibly do will be offset by the thing they’re most likely to do.”

“That is a question really only you can answer,” Valkyrie said. “We’re not hearing anything from the captured areas.”

“Which is pretty disturbing,” Eliza said.

I considered this. If Alma was telling the truth, the Teeth might be under new management soon. Also, the one time I had been behind Dragon’s Teeth lines had been during a test phase. That could mean what happened in Korea wouldn’t happen again. On the other hand, even though I hadn’t encountered any mass graves there, I had only seen two civilians. One had been in the company of UNIX agents. The other had been Nari. Genocide seemed to be a very real possibility.

“Is there a way of distributing them so that they can’t access them until the Teeth show up?” I asked. Then I answered my own question. “No. They move too fast.” I took a deep breath. “The best case explanation for I saw in North Korea was that the DPRK and the Dragon’s Teeth had been supernaturally good at evacuating civilians. I don’t think that explanation is likely.”

An alarm buzzed. “Well,” Valkyrie said, “they’re here.”

“Let me check,” I said, getting out of my wheelchair.

“OI!” Eliza said. “Don’t you fuckin’ get out of that.” She walked over to the monitor. “It’s not just Jen. ‘Parently, all the other fuckin’ reprobates showed up as well and they’re ‘avin’ a chat.”

“So should we bring them in here to kill themselves or let them get it out of their systems?” I asked.

“Don’t even joke about that,” Valkyrie said.

“Sorry,” I said. “You two go bring them in, I’ll go over this stuff some more.” Eliza picked up a Ballpeen on her way out. “Leave that here.” I said.

“No,” she said, pulling out a forty-round magazine she’d taken from somewhere and inserting it into the well in the grip. “I ain’t lettin’ those fuckers shoot one of us ‘cause we weren’t prepared.”

I sighed as Eliza and Valkyrie walked off. As usual, the painkillers weren’t being too effective today. Funnily enough, I hadn’t felt like a piece of steak that had been in the oven too long until after I’d been scooped off that fallow field in whatever bucket had been handy. I looked at the shitty phone I’d salvaged, a budget model from the early two thousands. It was two hours until the next time I could take the super-addictive narcotic that didn’t do anything.

Valkyrie and Eliza brought in the first group. “You should wait until they all get here,” Valkyrie said. “I’ll go out front to buzz them in.”

“This isn’t all of them?” Eliza whispered. I had to agree with her somewhat fearful tone of voice. There were at least fifteen people in the conference area I’d picked out. I consoled myself in that they’d divided themselves into groups of two or three and were too busy regarding each other warily to consider rushing the sample table. I decided then and there that I’d skip the portion of the event where I’d bring the group down to the firing range, partly because I genuinely didn’t feel safe doing that, mostly because we were already halfway to the point where I’d either have to limit range time or get more product.

Something I learned about Massachusetts organized crime was that it seemed to be well-heeled and very white. Most of the people spoke like they were from either the North End, the South End, Worcester, or Russia. There was one group of black people, and two groups of Latino people. They were the only groups that approached friendly, but even I could tell there was a bit of restrained edge to their greetings.

Then the two elephants entered the room. Separated by Valkyrie, and looking like they would kill each other were the representatives from the Jade Empire and the Kagemoto family.

The Kagemoto family probably had the tiniest base in Massachusetts. They were genuine Yakuza and, from what I’d heard, only managed to maintain their pool of hardened gunmen by importing people from Japan. Jen was there, of course, flanked by Hirosama and Kaori Murakami, a husband and wife team of Parahuman enforcers who worked under the names Dokutsu and Tatsu. Jen wore a red Boston Red Sox sweater and blue jeans, while the Murakamis looked as intimidating as usual in their sharp suits and tinted shades. As usual, despite being smaller, Kaori’s burns were more intimidating than her husband’s acne scars.

The Jade Empire was a different story. Three of the four representatives were Asian, which, despite the gang being inspired by the Chinese Triads, was unusual for the group. Most of the people were bored, middle-class suburban kids, low-income people in their twenties, or Brazilian immigrants. Jaime Washington followed this rule. He was one of the few black kids from my hometown and had somehow gotten into the Jade Empire early on and now seemed pretty high up in the hierarchy. Lang and Bao Zi were exceptions. The Lupine brother and sister pair were from China. I’d only heard that they were Lupines as they didn’t have the dog ears like Eliza did, but they had a certain confidence to their movement that indicated powers. Those three people wore green: Bao Zi wore a green waist-length peacoat, black vinyl skirt, high-heeled boots, and green aviator sunglasses, Lang wore a Celtics jersey and matching track pants with long gold chain, and Jaime was wearing a green hoodie opened up to reaveal a Kendrick Lamar t-shirt and baggy jeans.

The fourth Jade Empire member was someone I never thought to see, but should have expected. Mai Lau was a small Asian girl who had been a few years behind me in school. She had somehow come into a large amount of money and, in retrospect, her fortune and business ventures had grown with the rise of the Jade Empire. She was the only one in her party not exchanging murderous looks with the Kagemotos. In fact, she was dressed in an orange Maynard High School tee, jeans, and sneakers. She was even carrying a notebook like she was going to class again. Then she saw that I was there. Her eyes widened in shock as she met mine.

Jen noticed her reaction and began staring from Mai to me and back. Mai noticed this, and her face became more guarded. It was at this point that the rest of the room noticed the new arrivals and the atmosphere somehow became even more tense.

“Alright,” Valkyrie said, “Kagemotos over there, Jade Empire over there.” The places she pointed to were on opposite ends of the room. The two groups made some last attempts at posturing, then moved to their assigned locations. Valkyrie took turns glaring at them until she was satisfied they wouldn’t kill each other, then made her way back to us. “Do you know them?” she asked me under her breath when she arrived.

“Good question,” Eliza said in a neutral tone.

“I went to NIU with Jennifer Kagemoto,” I said. “Mai Lau was from high school, we only knew each other from theater class and a play or two.”

“Is that all?” Valkyrie asked.

“For Mai, yes.” I said. I turned to look Eliza in the eye. “I swear to God, yes.” I turned back to Valkyrie. “Jen, well, you’ve dealt with her. Jen makes everything complicated.” I considered this for a moment. “By the way, why the hell is Mai here?”

“She’s the Jade Emperor,” Valkyrie said. “When Jen killed her father a few weeks ago, she made a grab for Kagemoto territory. When Jen consolidated control, part of her retaliation was to dox Mai. She won’t admit it, but everyone knows Jen did it.”

“I take it that isn’t the first time they’ve fought?” I asked.

“Sort of,” Valkyrie said. “Mai’s been hidden pretty well. I think Jen only knew it a few minutes before the rest of us. Also, Jen hadn’t really had much control over the Kagemotos before she did her takeover. I think things got more intense.”

I sighed and buried my face in my hands. “Jesus fucking Christ, why the hell couldn’t this be easy?” I raised my head and said, “Well, you might as well give your speech.”

Valkyrie considered me with narrowed eyes for a moment. Then she turned around and slammed the pommel of her axe on the floor a few times. A gust of wind blew throughout the room each time the pommel hit. “Everyone!” she said. “I know each and every one of you are, to some extent, in this for money. We all know that there’s a new and very disruptive force that wants to take over pretty much everything. I thought, before I made my proposition, you’d want to hear from one of the few people with first-hand knowledge of them.” She stepped back and gestured to me.

 

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Track 21: Too Many of my Friends are Criminals

Somehow, I woke up. I think I had woken up several times before, but I didn’t count that in the same way I don’t count getting up at 2 AM to get some water as waking up.

The first thing I felt when I woke up was how much it hurt. I moved, and I could feel bits of my skin catch on the fibers of the bedclothes I was on. “Oi.” I looked up to my side. There sat Eliza in a hospital gown, head, left arm, and various other body parts wrapped in gauze. The parts that were visible had either first or second-degree burns. “You awake, or are you going to just going to go back to sleep again?”

“I might,” I said. My lips were sticking together. I wondered if that had something to do with me being out for however long I was out.

Eliza smiled. “I’d hug you, but you wouldn’t thank me. Just so y’know, we’re in Worcester. They detonated some sort of plasma weapon in Saint Louis and a few of the little bits munted us.”

“I know,” I said. “I remember that part. I take it that they didn’t use one of those personal launchers?”

“They ‘ave personal ones?” Eliza asked.

“Trust me,” I said, “they’re nasty, but nowhere near what that thing was.”

“We think it was a bomber,” Hicks said, barging into the room. He was badly burned, but not as burned as Eliza. “We managed to shoot down a couple, we meaning us, the Canadians and the Mexicans. We even shot down and secured the one that nuked Saint Louis.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Every time the government can get a news broadcast over the Dragon’s Teeth propaganda they’ve been bragging about it,” Hicks said. “They have to. Fourteen cities destroyed by a new weapon, most of Europe and Asia completely dark, allies chickening out, what the hell else can they do?”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I said. “What? What’s going on? Is the government nationalizing industry? The people in charge-”

“Mosta your reps got murdered around the time we were burning,” Eliza said. “They nearly took DC, killed damn near everyone in the White House, includin’ the President, Vice-President, and Cabinet, then ran ‘round breaking things in Capitol Hill before your blokes were able to stop them.”

“The… the president’s dead?” I said.

“He’s not the only one,” Hicks said. “Greg’s dealing with your lawyer’s real boss, just so you know.”

“Oh God,” I said. “Please tell me Ken isn’t dead. Jen’s going to-”

“Going to what?” Jennifer Kagemoto asked as she and a few bodyguards walked in, her green eyes flashing angrily and her ponytail swaying. “As people have constantly been telling me there isn’t anything I can’t do. I lose dozens of people killing my father, I lose even more when the Jade Empire and the Irish start sniffing around with their little rat noses, and now the Dragon’s Teeth are killing my people? My unarmed people. They’re going in the book.”

“Is that a confession?” Hicks asked.

Jen turned around to glare at Hicks. “You’re the only cop in the Goddamn building not on painkillers, in a wheelchair, and/or on the take, the district court’s a fucking refugee center, and I am extremely perturbed. Shut your trap, you arrogant, hypocritical, myopic piece of shit.”

There was a knock on the window. I turned.

I had only seen the woman floating outside my fourth-story window once in the flesh. If her long braid didn’t fall out of her Viking-style helmet, it would be hard to tell her gender from underneath the heavy breastplate and fur cloak. Everyone in Massachusetts knew her name. Valkyrie, the Champion-type Parahuman from the Minutemen, the state’s largest super hero group. Through the thick window, I could hear her ask, “Mind if I come in?”

Jen glared.  “I don’t know if I can stop you.” Then, as an afterthought, she added, “Bitch.”

“I’m only going to force my way in if anyone’s in danger,” Valkyrie said. “But we need to talk.”

“About what?” Jen asked. “If you want in on the fixing, that’s about a few weeks too late.”

“We both know there’s more important things,” Valkyrie said. “If I was the one pulling the plug, I’d be looking for a fight, too.”

Jen snarled, drawing her twin Berettas and unloaded them into Valkyrie. Eliza and Hicks got down on the floor, and I tried to drill myself into the bed. The last time I’d been in a hospital bed, unable to move, with an unstable Jumper, it hadn’t exactly improved my recovery time. One of Jen’s thirty-two rounds (a guess, based  on my own less fancy Berettas) ricocheted  and hit me in the head.

“Please stop,” Valkyrie said, “before you actually kill someone.”

I couldn’t see Jen’s reaction because I was busy clutching my bleeding temple and swearing, but I could hear the fear and struggle in Jen’s voice as she holstered her pistols. “So, what did you want?”

Valkyrie climbed through the window. “In case you haven’t heard, the Minutemen aren’t on the job anymore.”

“Really?” Jen asked, her voice brightening a bit. “What happened?”

“Some,” Valkyrie said, “are heading off to Canada. Others are joining some national groups who’re taking advantage of the cease fire to do God-knows-what to stop the Dragon’s Teeth. I’m trying to put together some capes to do something more productive.”

“And you’re desperate to come to me for help,” Jen said. “Why?”

“Because people like you know things about this state I’ll never figure out in a million years,” Valkyrie said.

“You could ask the FBI,” Hicks said. “And we’re not unstable.”

“If I thought the FBI knew the things she did or had a tenth of the capabilities it did six months ago,” Valkyrie said, “I would be talking to Massachusetts’ Field Director. Hell, if he was still alive, I’d be talking to him. But he’s dead and ninety percent of you are on traffic detail now.” She pointed to Jen. “We need people like her, Agent Hicks.”

Jen’s eyes narrowed at Valkyrie. “I’ll think about it.”

“That’s all I ask,” Valkyrie said.

As the hero started to leave, Jen called out, an exceedingly fake smile on her face, “By the way, it would be nice if you’d keep me informed as to who’ll be in this little club.”

After the hero flew off, Hicks said, “I don’t like it.”

“What part?” Jen asked sweetly. “The part where the country’s burning or the part where someone admitted that your agency is completely ineffective? Because honestly, I’m not really happy about either as a tax payer.”

“So, in other bits of news about resistance,” I said, trying to stop things from getting heated, “has anyone taken me up on my offer for weapon upgrades? I know from personal experience that the current stuff the US has can’t penetrate the standard Legionary armor that well.” That had been a bit of an overstatement. They had fallen down from my G3, albeit after what felt like twice the normal amount of bullets at half the average range. Berserkers, infantry with even heavier armor, were an even tougher nut to crack.

“Do you know how much it takes to replace a standard piece of equipment?” Hicks asked. “Even if we were able to just magically buy them all-”

“Not magically,” I said. “I just want the materials.”

“Yeah,” Hicks said rolling his eyes. “I’m no economist and I wasn’t a quartermaster, but I know enough about logistics to know that little request’s going to be an absolute nightmare.” I had no solution for that. “Then, you have to deal with training every soldier how to use the damn things.”

Yes! There was a problem I’d actually designed the weapons to side-step. “That shouldn’t be a problem,” I hurriedly said. “The Maccabee and the Ballpeen mostly use bits of the AK and AR-15 platform, so-”

“So they’re basically neither,” Hicks said.

“Well,” I said, “I suppose you could look at it that way.”

“And I have five bucks that the internals are nothing like an M16,” Hicks said.

If I was Nari, I would have immediately veered off that previous point and dissed the mechanical forbearers of our weapons and creators thereof. Instead, all I could say was, “They’re a lot better than what we have currently.”

“Whatever,” Hicks said, getting up to leave. “We literally don’t have enough resources to put you in prison, and I doubt we’d have a leg to stand on, seeing that you haven’t done anything in a country that’s in a position to extradite. Stay here until you’re healed or whatever, then give your bed up to the next poor bastard who needs it.” Judging by the tone of his voice, if there weren’t a lot of people in line right now, there would be soon enough.

Still, the Maccabee assault rifle, the Ballpeen SMG, and the Uilon Mangchi pistol could all pierce Dragon’s Teeth body armor of all kinds according to our computer simulations. The as-of-yet unnamed dual-belt-fed machinegun I’d made could do the same, except you could hold down the trigger for a lot longer. The sniper/anti-material rifle Nari had made could theoretically combined the anti-armor capabilities with something like a Barret M82 (but increased to possibly pierce Charon armor) and the range and accuracy of a more traditional sniper rifle. These could make a serious difference.

Jen had waited a bit while Hicks left. When he finally did, she turned back to me and said, “Such a shame. Those guns were quite excellent from what I saw.”

“Mm,” I said noncommittally. While in Japan, I had found out that Jen had managed to get a few crates through her police contacts. She only had seen the Uilon Mangchis, Maccabees, and Ballpeens, thanks to helping me test them and using some to shoot our way out of a nest of angry cultists.

“Imagine,” she said, “what would happen if you found people who could use them. People who were very, very good at blending into the woodwork.”

 

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Track 24: Deet Barz

I fell onto the ground, face first. As I struggled to breathe, I heard John, Bushido and Kuniochi open up. I then heard Jen say “Shit…” Hands gripped me, turning me on my side. “Well, at least it went clean through. What the hell did they shoot at you?”

I tried to list off a few suggestions like armor-piercing .338 Lapua, but instead, all that came out was a gasping sound. “Shut up, you idiot,” Jen said, moving into my field of view. “You have a collapsed lung.” She turned her head. “Anyone have some saran wrap?”

“Why the fuck would we have saran wrap?” one of the hackers asked.

“It’s in Nate’s pack,” John said. “Hurry up, I’m pretty sure that chopper is coming back.”

“Right,” Jen said, fiddling with my pack, “Ok. Tatsu, Dokutsu, get to that garage and get us a car. Preferably one that was made before the Nineties and has a lot of floorspace. Bushido, help me get him into cover.”

The act of picking me up caused me such an intense amount of pain that I blacked out. When I came to, my vest and pack were off and I was behind a car. Someone had lifted my shirt up and the entry wound in my back had been wrapped up with saran wrap like a sandwich. There was also the sound of a chopper overhead and John firing. I then heard the crack of a gunshot and John cry out in pain. Then there was the sound of something large and metal snapping apart. The chopper then began to sound a bit strange, and something large hit the ground.

“Listen,” Jen said, her masked face suddenly looming into mine. Behind me, I heard the chopper crash. “I’m about to shove a metal straw into a hole in your chest. It may hurt.”

Funnily enough, the actual insertion of the tube wasn’t the painful part. Yeah, it hurt, but Jen’s attempts to secure it in place with surgical glue hurt a lot more. I suddenly realized that she was turning me into a human blow-up doll.

“Yo, Driver!” Kuniochi asked, “You ok, man?”

“Fucker got me in the arm,” John said. “Guy’s in a fucking helicopter going what, a hundred twenty miles an hour? Plus the little shit’s three or four stories up. And he goes fucking two for two.” There was a pause, during which I assumed John was trying to get up. “Fffuck that hurts…” he groaned.

“He sounds fine,” Jen said. “Bushido, throw him a bandage.” She turned back to me. “Damn it, this thing is too small.” She laughed. “If I was a terrible person, I could make a lot of penis jokes right now.”

I groaned, as I had been thinking of those as well and knew that none of them could be good. If the groaning hadn’t hurt like hell, I would have attempted an emergency “That’s what she said.” Instead, I kind of passed out again.

I woke up in a room filled with mist. Richard was bracing a door with his back. Someone was also there, holding the door. He turned, and I recognized him as Jeong by his charred face. “He’s here,” Jeong whispered.

“The fuck?” Richard said. “How does that work?”

“I don’t know,” hissed Jeong, “Also, shut up! Do you want them to hear you?”

“What’s going on?” I asked. I looked around. “Oh fuck me, am I dead?” That, honestly, was the most logical explanation to what I was seeing. Richard and Jeong, after all, were both dead and I doubted they had ever met in life.

“Unless you know something we don’t,” Richard said, “I doubt it. You’re probably just asleep.”

“We are,” Jeong said, “but you might have noticed we’re a bit more active.”

“About that,” I said, “I mean, the ‘knowing something you don’t’ thing… I was recently kind of shot in the lung. It’s being treated, but…”

“God fucking dammit!” Richard said, hitting the wall in frustration.

“Shut. Up.” Jeong growled. He then turned back to me and said, “Listen, Nate, there’s been something weird going on. People who are dying… aren’t going away anymore. It’s hard to explain. We definitely are dying, but some of us can visit.”

“Well,” I said, remembering the previous visits from supposedly dead people I’d experienced, “I’ve noticed that.” I paused. “Does knowing someone make it easier to appear in front of them?”

“Slightly,” Richard said. “The bigger factor, though, is whether or not Dragon’s Teeth are around. Knowing you is like having better tires. Having Dragon’s Teeth around is like having a bigger engine.”

“But I first saw you when you were in Worcester!” I said, “The Dragon’s Teeth were only in North Korea at the time. And if they weren’t, they’d be preparing for Russia or India or France…”

Richard laughed. “Well, apparently they had at least two hundred to send to Worcester.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I said, “There were two hundred Dragon’s Teeth soldiers in Worcester? They could spare that much for a city of that little tactical and strategic importance in a country they weren’t even planning on invading?”

“What makes you think they aren’t planning on invading the US?” Jeong asked.

My blood ran cold. “How… how many are currently in this city?” I asked.

“Before you started blowing shit up?” Richard said. “More.” I felt myself go gray. “But after you rescued Jen? The Japs started looking for shit and finding it. Mexican Cartels, Yakuza, Russain Mafia, Triads, petty street criminals, spies, radical Islamitists, radical Parahumans, Commies… Even a few Dragon’s Teeth.”

“So,” I said, “I may have stopped an invasion of Japan?” I suddenly began to feel a lot better about the chaos I’d been causing. Maybe I’d even gotten a good chunk of them killed.

“That’s not what we need to talk about,” Jeong interrupted. “The thing is, the Deets have this… network. In their minds. We, that is, us dead people, think it’s been pulling our souls into it somehow.” I must have made a pretty impressed holy shit face because Jeong said, “Yeah. There’s a lot to unpack in that statement. There seems to be two networks: one goes in a pretty clear path. Soldiers are on the bottom, more senior people are at the top.”

“And the other?” I asked.

“It’s a web,” Richard said. “Every Dragon’s Teeth soldier is equal, every Dragon’s Teeth soldier is connected to every other one. It’s beautiful.” He shook his head. “The other’s just straight lines with dull colors, but this one… I’ve never seen anything like it. The lines bend and twist beautifully, they grow and shrink, and there’s colors I didn’t even know existed…”

“But there are still patterns to this one,” Jeong said. “Look.” The walls except for the door suddenly… disappeared? Began to display?… what seemed to be a ring of white light, but on closer inspection were many small lights, each a different color with yet with billions of still differing colors connecting them to each other dot.

As I looked, I noticed that the dots and their connecting bits were… warped. They seemed to be leaning towards a secondary ring. This secondary ring formed a ring of pure white light with only one of the colored dots. In the center was pure darkness. I suddenly realized I was looking at a black hole.

“Jesus…” I said when I had somehow made sense of what I was seeing. “That’s… that’s the complex psionic network.” Complex seemed to be too tame a word to describe what I was seeing. The same could be said of words like awesome or beautiful. Yet something about the vision seemed to be self-explanatory. I mean, the image before me was somehow explaining itself like a teacher carrying out a lesson. However, there was one thing I did not get.

“What’s the big black thing?” I asked, pointing to the black hole.

“That,” Jeong said, “is where they throw the souls of people who aren’t Dragon’s Teeth.”

“They seem to worship it,” Richard said. “They’re a fucking cult. They say it speaks to them.”

“Where is it?” I asked. “Like, geographically?” They turned to look at each other. “I mean, each of those dots of light is a Dragon’s Teeth soldier. You can figure out where they are. Can’t you do the same thing with that?”

“We think…” Jeong said, “that whatever it is, it spends most of its time at NIU.”

“Excuse me?” I said. “How can… how can anyone live there with… with… whatever the fuck that is? And it moves?  Something like that should cause cities to… to…”

“To what?” Richard asked. “You have even less of an idea of what it is then we do.”

“To be fair,” Jeong said, “that… thing seems to have some sort of quantum physics type thing where it can be in multiple places at once. Its bulk just seems to usually be centered in NIU.”

I remained silent for a long time, considering the implications of that. Was it something The President had made, or had he somehow bitten off more than he could chew? Of course, considering the size of that thing, those two were by no means mutually exclusive.

I was interrupted by Richard saying, “Uh, hey y’all, we seem to be getting closer.” He was right. We were hurtling towards the main ring of light at incredible speeds.

“We need to leave,” Jeong said. He opened the door, and he and Richard filed through. “Come on, Killer,” he said, “We’ve spent way too long here.”

I got up and followed, but I bounced off an invisible wall. We stared in horror. “Go,” I finally said.

“Wait,” Richard said, “You need…”

“I might be dead,” I said. “I might not wake up. Go.”

“He’s right,” Jeong said. “We need to leave.” Just before he closed the door, he said, “Good luck.”

Not even a second had passed before it burst open. I flew back. As I struggled to get to my feet, the armored figure of the Berserker I had killed in Korea walked in. Just as I was getting to my feet, he kicked my chest. I felt ribs shatter and my lung collapse again. He then grabbed me by my throat and lifted me so I was looking him right in his glowing eye.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “it’s all over now.”

My eyes opened as I let loose a scream. “Shit!” I heard someone say. “His lung is going to collapse again.” Then my lung collapsed again.

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Track 23: SHOT THROUGH THE LUNG

I was about to respond to John when a burst of gunfire hit the Z4. I turned to see that the driver had climbed out the window while I had been dealing with the flanking force. She was lying on her side and seemed to be in shot. “Are you shot?” I asked. She shook her head. “Ok,” I said, “if you can, run. Stay low, take the exit, and keep moving until you find shelter.”

She nodded, but just as she was about to get up, a burst of gunfire hit her car again. She screamed and put her head down. “JOHN!” I yelled. “COVERING FIRE!” We both opened up, hitting where we thought the shooter was coming from. “RUN!” I yelled to the woman. She didn’t need any more urging.

Finding places to aim that wouldn’t hit civilians but would hit whoever was shooting at us was a hard task. The entire road was filled with civilian vehicles, and our attackers didn’t seem to be hesitant to use them as cover. Combined with the fog and rain, identifying targets was pretty much impossible.

“John,” I said, “cover the other side of the road. We need to…” I was interrupted as a massive explosion rocked the overpass we were on. I turned to look at it. Apparently, the flanking force had more explosives than just the one rocket launcher. A small car had found this out the hard way when it had smashed into the back of it.

“Jesus!” John said. On cue, there was a series of smaller secondary explosions. The overpass shook a disturbingly large amount for something that was suspending us high above a concrete surface.

“Make sure no more of those things sneak up behind us to fuck us in the ass,” I said. “I’m going to Bushido and Kuniochi. We need a perimeter and we need it now.”

“Oh hell yeah,” John said. “Get one of them to help me cover the rear.”

I nodded and moved to the sound of Ballpeens firing, making sure to stay in cover. The traffic was backed up farther than I could see. Of course, due to it being a foggy, rainy night, that wasn’t very far. Plus, an eighteen-wheeler had skidded over, forming a sort of blockade. It rose out of the mist like an alien structure. I switched my scope to its thermal mode. There was no other way to see anything except vague muzzle flashes.

As I headed forward, I tried to ignore the crashed cars. The dead were fine, I had seen dead people enough times to realize they didn’t matter anymore, at least during combat situations. The living and obviously fine civilians were emotionally gratifying but tactically worrying. After all, the “uniform” our attackers were wearing was only slightly different from civilian clothing, or some idiot could pick up an abandoned firearm and play hero.

The worst part was the people who were dying. I don’t want to scar you with the details, but if you’re a paramedic with a lot of car accidents in your territory, you can probably fill in the details.

I turned around a station wagon. A man in business casual, raid vest, and a surgical mask was bent over another man in the same uniform lying face-down in the rain-soaked road. The second man had several holes in his back, holes I recognized as exit wounds from a Maccabee’s six-and-a-half millimeter cartridge. He seemed to have dragged himself behind the car, despite the fact that most of one of his lungs was now outside his body. Blood flowed across the tarmac.

The subject checking the downed hostile noticed me at the same time. His Type 89-F was pointed in the air. He lowered it to point at me, but I had already been aiming at him. I fired, twice at his chest and once at his head. I spared a brief moment to look at the blood trail. It led to some kind of M-4 clone (probably an HK 416 or 417) abandoned behind a coupe. I then moved forward and kicked the Type 89 away from the two subjects and moved on.

Eventually, I found one of the hackers crouched behind a car. “Bushido?” I asked as I got behind the vehicle. “That you?”

“Close enough,” the hacker said. “Have you seen my twin?”

It took me a moment to realize that s/he was referring to the person in the matching costume and not a relative. “No,” I said. “I was hoping you’d seen him.”

“Fuck.”

I agreed with Kuniochi. This was not good. I looked up and saw an even worse thing. Four men, three with belt-fed weaponry and one with what looked to be a six-shot grenade launcher were closing in. If they had seen us, I wouldn’t be able to raise my gun in time. “GET DOWN!” I yelled.

Three machineguns began to tear into the car in short, controlled bursts leaving no time for me to pop my head. I had followed my own advice and got behind the wheel underneath the engine block. The problem was that meant Kuniochi had to hide behind a door. I also realized that there was someone inside. Several bullets smashed through the flimsy metal and knocked Kuniochi on her back. Also, a few of the shards of glass were blood-stained.

Before I could worry about Kuniochi, she had raised her Ballpeen and began firing through the thin metal. “DIE!” She yelled. “FUCK THE FUCK OFF!”

“JESUS CHRIST!” I yelled as she began dry-firing, obviously wondering why her gun had stopped working. “STOP WASTING YOUR AMMO, AND TRY TO MAKE DECENT ONE-LINERS!”

My yelling was cut off by a grenade exploding on the roof of the car right in front of me. The shrapnel cut into my face. I was momentarily thankful for buying the scratch-resistant lenses for my glasses. Without them, I would have been blinded! Then the blood started leaking into my right eye.

Meanwhile, the machinegunners behind us were still firing. One bullet came so close that it passed through the sleeve of my sweater, so close it burned me. With a yell of pain, I lifted my arm to my face, just in time to block more shrapnel. The good news was my throat had been saved and my Maccabee took the brunt. The bad news is that my arm was now bleeding profusely and the only thing I owned that could hide injuries with was ruined.

Meanwhile, the car that doubled as our only source of cover was being ripped to shreds. A subject with a shotgun came into view. I fired, he fired. My shoulder was suddenly lacerated. He fell back, a few new holes in his chest. As this happened, a grenade flew through the now-fully shattered windows of our car and landed smack-dab in the center of the one I was facing. From inside that car I began to hear screaming.

I then noticed that the MGs had gone silent. I popped out of cover, still able to hold my gun. There, standing on a panel van, M3 in one hand and Vector in the other, was Jen. Well, she was in costume, so technically Hinomoto Oniko. She was obviously tired, despite the fact that she was wearing a mask and I could barely see her. She jumped down and began walking towards us.

“Damn!” I looked over to around where shotgun-subject had taken a pop. It was Bushido. “This is getting intense.”

Jen’s masked face turned to look at Bushido. “How the hell,” she asked, directing the question to both him and Kuniochi, “did you two think it was a good idea to split up?” I noticed that the visor on Kuniochi’s helmet was cracked. Either car doors were more bullet-resistant than I thought, or her visor was really tough.

“Good question,” I said, “but let’s save that for the after-action report, shall we?” I noticed that I was grabbing my arm. I pulled it away and noticed my hand was now soaked in blood. Ignoring it and the sting from rain falling into my wound, I began to use it to gesture. “Right now, we need to fall back and shore up the perimeter. We’ve left John alone too long.”

We began to head back to the where the Escalade was. I was falling behind, letting Bushido and Kuniochi take point. I should have been moving faster, considering that I was starting to hear gunfire again. Jen noticed this and fell back.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Kuniochi got shot in the face,” I said. “I’d be more worried about her.”

“I have access to her diagnostics,” Jen said. “Perks of our armor. Her brain scan is normal and she doesn’t seem to have whiplash. You, however are wincing like a puppy with a broken leg whenever rain hits your shoulder. That concerns me.”

“I’m good,” I said. “I’m fine.” Jen made a little “I see” noise. “Hey,” I said, “you should have seen me when I took a rifle grenade at Hell Semester.” Jen was unconvinced.

She was about to say something when the stray bullet hit her in the chest. Her armor was so good she only staggered a bit, but we both got to cover. I looked to see that it had come from several white panel vans that were now forming a barricade between us and the nearest exit.

Before I could switch to X-ray or sonar mode on my scope, the line of vans rocked, nearly crushing the people behind them. Dokutsu then got out, firing his Desert Eagle at the vans. He stomped his foot, and one of the vans flipped. Tatsu hurried out after him. She leaned back then forward, like the big bad wolf about to huff and puff.

The idea was probably the same because a cone of fire shot from where I assumed Tatsu’s mouth would be, explaining her lack of gas mask. The fire engulfed the vans and, I assumed, the fuel tanks as well because they began to explode.

“Come ON!” Jen yelled. “We need to get out of here!”

We advanced towards the exit ramp and the burning wrecks. No subjects popped out from the burning wrecks, but we still had someone cover them just in case as we headed down the ramp.

“Look,” Tatsu said pointing to a nearby building as we got to the base of the off-ramp. “That looks like a parking garage. We should be able to find some transportation in there.”

“Good,” Jen said. “We needed to have left half an hour ago.”

“Hey,” John said as we sprinted towards the building, “do you hear that?”

I listened. The whump-whump-whump of helicopter blades was getting louder and louder. “Shit,” I said. “Chopper. Here’s hoping that it just passes…”

There was a thwip and I felt something like a bee sting. Before I could even work out what had happened, I was face down, in extreme pain, and was having trouble breathing. Whatever had just happened was not good.

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Track 22: Zero to One Hundred

“Shit!” I said. This wasn’t an accident. The Toyota Sienna that had side-swiped us had clear windows, so I could see the frightened family inside. The hadn’t meant to side-swipe us. If what had happened to us was any indication, they didn’t have any choice. “I think this is a cyber-attack.”

“No shit, Sherlock!” Andrew or Lydia said.

“You’re the hackers!” I said. “Do someth…!” Another car, a BMW Z4, side-swiped us, knocking the minivan into traffic. Two other cars hit the minivan, one right after another, leaving it a crumpled mess. The driver of the Z4, a woman in a fancy evening gown, may have been saved by her airbag, but her passenger, a man in a suit, hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt. He’d gone through the window and smashed his head against the side of the Escalade. I felt the walls of the Escalade hit my leg.

“Already on it!” one of the hackers yelled. “The fix should be taking effect…”

I looked up to see an old Toyota pickup barreling towards me.

“…About…”

It was hard to tell in the dark and at a distance, but I think the driver looked just as terrified as I did. He was obviously trying to turn, but the car wasn’t responding.

“…Now!”

At the last second, the pickup swerved. He missed us and the Z4, but was T-boned by a delivery van. Then a Subaru hit his bed. Cars were beginning to stop. Then the lights began to turn off. Soon, the only sources of lights were headlights. Someone or something had cut the power.

“Did you just hack the city’s power grid?” I asked the hackers.

“Don’t sound too impressed,” one of them said, grunting in pain. “We bought a… agh! A backdoor from some Russians… or people pretending to be Russians. All we had to do is… ahhh-ah-ah-ah… type in the zip code and all the power in the area shuts off. Cameras… traffic lights… they also fuck off.”

“You ok?” I asked.

“Didn’t…” the hacker said, “…didn’t put in the pads on my armor. Seatbelt just cracked my sternum.”

Resisting the urge to berate the hacker for not bringing the pads, I asked, “Can everyone move? We need to get moving.”

“I’ll…” Jen said weakly, “I’ll be a minute. My head…” There was some fumbling, then a wretching sound.

“Aw, gross!” one of the hackers said.

“We are trapped by the console,” Hirosama/Dokutsu said. “However, this is the exact reason we sewed some granite plates into the frame. “I should be able to get us free, but it will take time. Also…” That sounded ominous.

“Also…” Kaori/Tatsu said, obviously in intense pain, “…I seem to have a compound fracture. If someone could get me a cast, I could cauterize and set it while we work.”

“I got you,” John said, reaching into his pack. He took out a pack with a red cross and handed it over the middle seat. “Hey, someone pass this up to Tatsu.”

“While they’re doing that,” I said, “we need to set up a perimeter. Kuniochi, Bushido, you head out first, I’ll follow you. John get a neck brace on just to be safe, then follow us out. Jen, don’t come out unless you’re sure you’re fine.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Jen said. Her voice was unfiltered, so she’d probably taken off her mask. Then she vomited again.

“Door’s jammed shut,” one of the hackers said.

“Is it blocked?” Jen asked, annoyed.

“No.”

“Then blow the fucking charges.”

“Wait!” I said. “Before you exit the vehicle, I want you two to understand how we’re going to behave. We are going to show our weapons, but we will not aim them at civilians unless we suspect they’re not, or that they’re going to play hero. We’re going to be firm and only as loud as needed to be heard. I don’t want any dead civvies, and if you follow these rules there won’t be any. You understand?”

“Got it,” one of the hackers said, cocking the Maccabee. “Don’t fuck up the normies.”

Before I could express concern that I had given a 4chan troll automatic weaponry and told them to do one of the hardest jobs a soldier could do, the door blew open. The two hackers exited the vehicle and instantly began shouting curses and threats.

“They’re going to start shooting civilians any second, aren’t they?” John asked as he fixed his collar in place. I nodded. John sighed. “Fuck me, right?”

I exited the Escalade, unfolding my stock as I jumped out the hole where the door used to be. “What,” I asked dangerously, “did I say about controlling the civilians?” I paused, and saw that they both were pointing their guns at a man cowering by the crashed minivan, their lasers and lights illuminating him. I didn’t need to see them to know that their fingers were in their triggers. I did see that the man wasn’t holding anything and was obviously being as compliant as he could. “And what the fuck did I say about pointing weapons at civillians?”

“Uh…” one said, “…I’m thinking ‘don’t point weapons at civilians?’”

“For future reference,” I said, “Only point your weapon at a civilian if you can’t see their hands or if they enter this zone.” I indicated a semi-circular area around the Escalade. “If they start to get too close, use hand signals as well as words. Only pull your weapon if they get within twenty steps or have some sort of weapon. If you see a gun, call it in.”

“Follow those steps to the fucking letter,” John said, coming out towards us, “Or I’ll shoot you myself.” He looked at the man Bushido and Kuniochi had been terrorizing. “What’s his deal?” The man in question was sobbing and pleading. He may have been crying, but it was hard to tell in the rain.

“We don’t know,” one of the two hackers said. “We can’t speak Japanese, he can’t speak English.”

“I think I recognize him,” I said. “He was driving his family somewhere in that minivan.” I pointed to the crumpled minivan. The darkness, rain, fog and flickering headlights shining right at us made it hard to tell, but the driver’s side was empty and the door was open. The front windscreen shattered and bloodstained and the frame made it seem miraculous that anyone inside was even alive, let alone walking.

“Shit…” John said.

“I know,” I said. John began to move to help the man, but before he did, I said, “Hey, do you have a spare flashlight? I want to check to confirm the lack of hostiles and help any civvies as much as I can. Figure if the cops get us that would count for something, right?” Plus, there was the matter of the Geneva Convention and basic morality. John saw the logic and handed me a flashlight.

My first stop was the van we had hit. The man inside, a young Japanese man about my age, was breathing into a paper bag. Shining the light inside with one hand, I knocked on the window with the other. “Sir,” I asked, “are you alright?”  He shook his head, then locked the door. He must have noticed that I was carrying an assault rifle. I sighed and moved on to the Z4.

As I did, I heard Kuniochi and Bushido securing the perimeter in a much more professional manner. Good. That meant we had a chance of not hurting civvies.

That is, assuming any had survived the crash. The BMW had thrown its passenger through the windscreen and into the side of the Escalade. Judging by how much of his brains were showing, the funny angle of his neck, and the stains on the side of the now white Escalade, he was dead. If he was still alive by some miracle, he’d be dead soon. My guess was that he hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt. The hood of the car was crumpled like an egg carton that had been stepped on and all the windows had been cracked to hell and back by the impact. Through the spider web of cracks that had turned the windows snow white, I saw the driver move.

I ran to the driver’s side and knocked away what was left of the window. “Ma’am?” I asked the woman. “Are you OK?” She was slumped over her airbag. Her evening dress and much of the interior of her car was surprisingly clean, her gauzy blue-green dress with sequins only slightly ruffled and the gray and black leather of the interior mostly spotless. “Ma’am.”

She turned and looked at me. Her nose was broken and bleeding, her lips were cut, one of her formerly perfect teeth was loose, and her blood was causing her makeup to run. It was hard to tell because one of her eyes was swelling up, but I think the pupils were different sizes. Bits of safety glass glinted in her hair as she moved. “Kouta?” she asked, her voice slurred.

Shit. That was probably the person she had been driving with. “No.” I said. “Do you speak English?”

“H…hai… I mean yes,” she said. “I speak English. I can speak English.”

Ok, that would be useful. Then I saw her attention drifting to where her passenger had impacted. “Hey!” I said sharply. “Look at me. Look at me.” She did. “Can you get the door open?” This served two purposes. The first was that if she looked at her passenger, she’d most likely be a gibbering wreck for the next few hours. If I hadn’t gone through Hell Semester, I’d be wondering how she could even function right now. The other reason was that I wasn’t sure if she would be safe in there. I needed her out of the car in case it was a time bomb.

She began pushing the door. As she did, I heard one of the people in the Bushido costumes shout, “Hey, I’m seeing movement further up!”

“Listen,” I said to the woman, “I’m going to check something out. If I’m not back when you get out of there, I want you to move behind the wheel near the engine. That will keep you safe for a little while. Do you understand?” She nodded. I continued. “If you hear gunfire, leave through the window and run towards the exit ramp.” I looked at her feet. She was wearing six-inch heels. “Do you have any shoes without heels?”

She nodded. “I do. They don’t really go with my dress…”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said, “if things go bad, and if you can run in those shoes, they may just save your life.” I looked for the exit. It was about fifty meters away. “You may need to sprint fifty meters. You won’t be able to do that in heels.” She nodded. “I’m going to be meeting with my friends. They…”

“Oh shit!” I heard one of the hackers yell. “Gun! Gun! Guh…!”

Maccabees and Ballpeens have distinctive sounds due to the extremely unconventional ammo and mechanism they use. Mostly, it’s just loud, louder than any other gun in their respective categories. The first burst wasn’t a Maccabee or Ballpeen. It was hard to tell who shot second, but I could tell that Lydia and Andrew were engaging multiple hostiles.

“Shit,” I said. “Listen, you need to crawl out of here and run. Use the other side.” I turned to head to the gunfire, turning the flashlight off and putting it in my vest’s webbing. “JOHN!” I yelled, “FINISH UP AND GET OVER HERE!”

On the side of the highway moving in the other direction, I saw a van pull up and start to disgorge people. I moved to the trunk, raised my gun and switched to thermal vision. That was the only way I would be able to see the subjects. They were armed. Of course they were.

“WAIT!” I yelled. “GET DOWN! CONTACT LEFT! CONTACT LEFT! CONTACT LEFT!” I began firing, trying to suppress them.

I was too late. One of the subjects had pulled out a rocket launcher and fired, causing him to light up on my scope. I saw John a few meters away from the minivan backlit by an explosion. He was firing his Maccabee at the van as well. The sound of his bursts of automatic fire and my semi-auto shots were much louder than their weapons. The enemy also discovered very quickly that hiding behind the walls of a van did nothing against someone with a Maccabee and X-ray/sonar scope.

John eventually got back to the Z4. By that point, the subjects in the minivan were either dead or thoroughly suppressed. “So,” he said, still aiming his gun at the now fully perforated van, his see-through magazine showing it was still mostly full, “things are going well, aren’t they?”

 

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Track 21: Life in the Fast Lane

“So,” I asked Jen, “what’s the smokescreen you’re planning on using?” We were driving down the highway, Jen, Andrew, and Lydia in the middle row. Mayu, John, and I were in the middle. Hirosama was driving and Kaori was on the passenger side. John and I were scanning the road for threats. I didn’t know if he felt it too, but I had a bad feeling.

“Well,” Jen said, “apparently, the vast majority of known spy satellites have a certain flaw. Let’s say someone launches a fairly sloppy hacking attempt on them.”

“Which I just did,” Lydia (at least I think it was Lydia, the costume made it very hard to tell.) “Well, it’s more like a DDoS on all the ones that will cover Japan for the next eight hours…”

“Anyway,” Jen said, cutting her off, “when the hack…”

“Technically, attempt at unauthorized access,” Andrew (at least, I’m pretty sure it was Andrew) interrupted.

“Whatever!” Jen’s outburst made Andrew and Lydia shut up. “When the thing happens, the satellite shuts down. Quite the equalizer, right? And all you really need is a way to contact the satellite.”

“Is that something you used your botnet for?” Mayu asked excitedly.

“Oh hell yeah!” Andy (or Lydia) said. “That’s exactly what that’s for!” He or she laughed. “Can you imagine? Billions of dollars’ worth of government equipment brought down by smart appliances.”

“Yes,” I said dryly. “I honestly can imagine some of these governments dropping a smart bomb on some poor bastard’s home because his toaster is spamming a spy satellite with dank memes.” This truly was the dumbest future.

“Oh don’t be such a killjoy,” Jen said as Lydia and Andrew laughed. “Oh, and Bushido? Kuniochi? In the future, please remember: a magician doesn’t reveal their secrets. Except to their patrons, of course.” Lydia and Andrew got the message and shut up.

We drove along for a little while in silence. Mayu then asked, “So… what is a smart home?”

“Basically,” John said, “it’s a way of connecting various appliances and utilities to the internet. If you want your heating system or AC to be off while you’re at work, but you want your house to be the perfect temperature when you walk in the door? That’s part of a smart home. Want to be able to unlock your door if your parents show up when you’re at work? That’s part of a smart home. Want to have a camera system connected to the internet? That’s part of a smart home. The problem is, these systems are currently kind of a patchwork, fuck up a lot, and are really, really easy to hack. I actually took a class about how to kill people just by using their own smart home.”

“So…” Mayu asked, “is Kage fortress a smart home?”

I considered this for a moment. “Yes. But probably a lot more elegant and secure than most, if you listen to Hiro.”

“Just like a government spy satellite is more elegant and secure than a home security system?” Mayu asked?

I nodded, wondering where Mayu was going with this. She just continued to sit there, smiling her fixed smile. We drove in silence for a while longer.

Eventually, Jen said, “So, apparently the Defenders have figured out how to miniaturize Anti-Jump fields.”

“Really?” John asked. “How do you know?”

“Because,” Jen said, “they were using them. Don’t worry, they aren’t really that good, I was still able to jump. It just took a lot out of me. That reminds me… did we bring the drone?”

“The one with the anti-Anti-Jump field?” one of the people in the Bushido costumes asked. “Got it right here.” There was a sound of a belt being patted. “Your pet genius did it again.”

“I thought you were her pet geniuses,” I said.

“And I thought you had learned to stop asking questions,” Jen responded. “Really, Nate, you have too many habits that will get you killed.” I took the somewhat subtle hint and shut the fuck up.

A long silence followed. During that time, Kaori turned on the BBC. It quickly became apparent that Russia wasn’t the only one having to deal with a sudden influx of what sounded to be Dragon’s Teeth. The partial list seemed to be Germany, Russia, France, South Korea, India and Pakistan. Then, there was the news that Belgium had already fallen. Other countries were also reporting terrorist attacks. It all seemed so unreal.

Mayu was the one to break the awkward silence. “Oh! I’ve been meaning to ask you this, Kagemoto-sama!” she said. She reached into a pocket on her skirt and handed Jen a folded piece of paper. “Does the person I drew look familiar?”

Jen took the paper. “Huh. He looks a lot like Mubashir.”

I tensed. So did John. Mayu must have noticed, but she gave no sign of it. “I am curious,” she said, “where did you meet Mubashir? Was it at this fabled Nowhere Island University?”

“How the hell did you even hear about that?” Jen asked.

“Jacobs-san and Marshall-san both had the logo on their jackets when I first met them,” Mayu said, referring to our hoodies. “The logo is also on the back of their phones, and the phones of Blackmoor-Ward-ojou and Henderson-san. My relative met with me briefly and noted that he was trained there. Or did you mean how did I know who Mubashir is?” Her voice had the same bubbly cheeriness, but I could hear a bit of bitterness underneath.

“Mayu,” I said, “Is now really the time to be talking about this?”

“Considering what’s on the radio,” Mayu asked, her mask of perpetual cheerfulness slipping, “it’s almost too late to talk about it.”

“What is this we’re talking about?” Jen asked.

“Remember how you told me not to ask questions?” I shot back. “You’re not allowed to know, you don’t need to know, and honestly, you don’t want to know.”

“I’m sorry,” Jen said, “I just thought the fact that, you know, being right in the middle of whatever you’re doing would give me some right to know what’s going on.”

“Trust me,” John replied, “this entire thing is so stupid. You don’t want to know.”

“Look,” I said to Mayu, “this is stupid. If you think I’m going to stop you and Charlotte from going after Mubashir, even now, I wouldn’t do anything that could stop you.”

“But if you could,” Mayu said, “you would, wouldn’t you?”

I considered this. “I would want to make sure you realized that Moob’s human,” I said eventually. “Not some sort of weapon or tool.” Mayu was about to say something, but I added, “I’d also want you to talk to some sort of psychologist. You know, make sure you’re in a good place. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?” Actually, considering Mayu’s outburst earlier today, Charlotte would probably find that reasonable as well. Maybe I could get what I wanted after all.

May’s already near-albino complexion somehow went even whiter and her eyes widened. She began gripping her rifle much tighter, as if she was trying to hang on for dear life. “Of-of course, Jacobs-san,” she said. I noticed her breathing was labored. I suddenly realized she was having a panic attack. “Completely reasonable.” She laughed, obviously trying to make me think she was fine. It didn’t work. She then turned to face the road ahead. “Completely reasonable.”

There was more silence. Mayu wasn’t relaxing. The road we were driving on was a raised highway. Lydia had apparently checked it ahead of time for roadblocks and there weren’t any. The traffic was at that point where it was as heavy as it could be without slowing down, and there was a bit of a mist and some rain. Occasionally, we had heard helicopters fly overhead. However, there had been one for the past few minutes that had been hovering directly over us. I was starting to get a little suspicious.

Just before I was about to voice my suspicions, I suddenly felt like I had been buried. Jen let out a gasp and Mayu’s grip on her HK 417 somehow got even tighter. “Shit!” either or Lydia or Andrew said, “anti-jumpfield!”

“Launch. The. Drone.” Jen said through gritted teeth.

“We can’t,” Lydia or Andrew said. “The car’s going too fast and the traffic’s too heavy. The wind’ll make it impossible to launch, and a car could hit it.”

“We have a problem,” Kaori said.

“I noticed,” Jen growled, holding her head. Then she snarled at her two techs, pain evident in her voice, “Launch it anyway.”

“It would only be a temporary…”

“The brakes are disabled!” Kaori yelled.

“What?” Jen asked. “Turn off the engine! Use the e-brake!”

“I can’t!” Kaori said, obviously panicking. “The car just keeps accelerating!”

“Heh,” Mayu said, her fixed grin morphing into something malevolent. “Sayonara, baka.” Even I knew what that meant, but before I could do anything, she jumped. Only thin air remained behind: no weapons, no equipment, just air. The seatbelt retracted immediately after.

“Mayu’s gone!” I said. “She just jumped out of here!”

I looked back just in time to see the stop indicator lights of the van in front of us turn red. “Kaori, turn!” Someone yelled that. It may have been me. It may have been someone else. Either way, it was too late. As soon as the last consonant was uttered, we hit the van. Before we had any time to react, something slammed into us from the rear.

We all took some time to recover. I turned to look at John. He was bent forward, blinking in shock. The roof of the Escalade had caved in to dope slap him. “Holy shit,” I said. I turned to the rear. The thing that had hit us was an eighteen-wheeler. “Holy shit,” I said again.

“Yeah, I know, right?” John said. He looked just as freaked out as I felt.

Then the helicopter above us smashed into a building nearby.

“Ok,” I said as everyone groaned, “everyone, sound off. Tell me what your status is.”

“We’re a little…” someone from the middle row began.

Then the minivan hit us.

 

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