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 6: Nightmares

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

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

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

“Jeong!” I yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you chased after them,” I said.

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

“Not denying that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God, yes,” Eliza said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you here?” Bai asked.

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

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

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

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


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Track 12: Outshined

I attempted to turn around, but when I turned ninety degrees, I had to turn back to forward facing due to how bright the light behind me was. Meanwhile, two of my teammates were screaming in pain and terror.

Jeong’s screams were mostly just pure animal cries. John, meanwhile, was screaming things I could understand perfectly. “MY EYES!” he screamed, “MY EYES! OH GOD, I’M FUCKING BLIND!”

Meanwhile, I realized that the Deets in front of us were going to use this opportunity to charge. I pulled out a grenade, not bothering to check what type it was, and tossed it around the corner. There was a thump and I heard several people yell.

Before I could turn the corner, a Deet soldier in that disturbingly dark black staggered around the corner. He looked like some sort of specter. I shot him in the neck, and he continued to fall, a dark liquid that was probably his blood spraying the wall.

Building on my momentum, I turned the corner. Dark shapes that may have been Deet soldiers and/or were scattered across the ground.  One short, vaguely humanoid shape was still standing upright, though just barely, and appeared to be clutching its neck. I instinctively triple-tapped it.

The shape fell, but before it did, it was able to pull out a pistol and double-tap me in the chest. Strangely enough, the pistol it used was so quiet, I only realized it had fired from the smoke it emitted and the impacts from the bullet. Otherwise, I would have thought his gun had jammed.

As this was happening, a gun poked up from behind a dumpster and sprayed blindly. It was surprisingly accurate for blind fire, as I got hit three more times. This one was also extremely quiet. Luckily, whatever ammo these guys were using was as wimpy as it was quiet. Of the five rounds, only one penetrated my armor, and that was stopped by a rib. It hurt like hell, but I was alive.

Laying down suppressive fire with one hand, I pulled out a frag grenade with the other. I then primed it and rolled it down the alley. It rolled right to where the remaining Dragon’s Teeth soldier was hiding and exploded.

Satisfied, I limped back around the corner, pausing only to collect a pistol that the first Deet soldier had dropped and shove it into my boot. Finally, the blueish white light had cleared up. What I saw wasn’t very encouraging.

Something had come from the area of the T-junction we hadn’t been down. Something extremely hot. It had sailed down from the enemy position, and hit the building forming the wall, causing the cheap concrete to melt like candle wax. Then, like a bouncy ball of death, it had fallen to the asphalt beneath, creating another steaming crater. It then continued to bounce back towards the enemy position, which I assumed is what had saved us from being overrun.

Another odd thing I noticed was that there were a bunch of spikes embedded in the wall, as well as Deet bullets. Was someone firing a nail gun or something?

Meanwhile, Joseph had salvaged Jeong’s PKM and was firing it down the alley the death ball had come from, and was getting quite a few bullets in return. Sunny was a little bit further from that alley crouched over something charred, and Kyle was applying a cold compress to John’s eyes. Thankfully, John had stopped screaming.

“This thing’s almost out of ammo!” Joseph shouted. “How’s Jeong?”

“He’s… he’s fine,” Sunny said, her voice husky. “He just needs to… needs to…” As she looked up, I noticed one side of her face was slightly red like she had been burned.

I hurried over to where Sunny was. It took me a second to realize it, but the charred thing she was crouched over was human. Nothing remained of its face, except some charred muscle. Then it spoke, and I realized it was Jeong. “Sunny…” he wheezed, then he continued on in Korean. In response, Sunny burst into tears.

When she was done sobbing, she said, “He says he can hold them off while we run.”

“Great,” Joseph said, turning back for a moment from firing, “but where the hell are we going to run to?”

Suddenly, halfway between the L-bend and the T-junction, a manhole cover popped off. From inside, a young girl, about eight years old, with short hair popped her head out. “Quick,” she said, “follow me.” She then disappeared into the tunnel.

“Should we…” Kyle asked hesitantly.

“Don’t see much of a choice,” Joseph said, fiddling with a brick of something. “Killer, you go first.” He then chucked something down the alley.

Before Kyle could protest, I ran to the manhole, tucking my G-3 under my arm as I went. I then decided that the best thing to do would be to slide down the ladder. I wasn’t sure how long we’d have. On my way down, I was introduced to a fragrance that, if my nose served me right, was an odious mixture of shit, pee and toxic waste.

As soon as I got down, there was a massive explosion from the surface. I drew my G-3 and scanned the area. It was just me, the little girl, and the sewer. I noticed that the sewer followed the same route as the alley above. I also was now able to get a clear look at the girl’s clothing. She was wearing a white shirt and overalls. I also noted that one of her shoes was missing and that her clothes were slightly burned and frayed.

“Clear!” I called up to the rest of my team.

“Tell your team to hurry up, Yankee,” the girl said. “If they fight, they die.” She looked worried, mostly because she was probably right. I didn’t blame her. However, I couldn’t let her go running off.

“We need to pull off an orderly retreat,” I said. “If we just run, they’ll catch us.” The girl nodded like she wasn’t entirely convinced.

The next person down was John, ZMR slung over his back with a sling. The wet cloth was still tied around his eyes, but he was still moving pretty fast without me needing to worry. When he finally got down he breathed a sigh of relief. “That,” he said, “was fucking scary.”

I dragged him over to the girl. “Grab his hand,” I said to the girl. When she did, I said, “When I give the word, you’re going to drag him along after you. If the rest of us don’t make it, he can help you. But you need to take care of him. You got it?” She nodded, a serious expression on her face.

Meanwhile, Sunny had already gotten down the ladder and Kyle was just about done as well. I turned around to face them. “Where’s Joseph?” I asked.

Suddenly a pair of legs swung down the hole in the ceiling. “Coming!” Joseph said. He climbed down a few steps, then slapped some sort of brick to the ceiling. “Get going!” he said, fiddling with some controls on the brick. “I’ll be with you in a bit!”

That was all the encouragement our small guide needed. Pulling John’s arm, she began heading down towards the T-junction. Then, to my discomfort, she took the turn leading under the enemy’s position. “Ow, ow, ow,” John said as she pulled.

“Quiet!” the girl hissed. “Sound goes very far!”

She then began to run at a flat-out pace. It wasn’t very fast for us, with our long legs and military training, but it was beginning to tire her out. Eventually, she turned another corner, but she slipped and fell. When she landed, I heard her scream out in pain. I somehow had ended up behind John, Sunny, and Kyle, so I couldn’t see what was going on.

I suddenly realized that Joseph still hadn’t caught up. I turned around and saw him running along behind us, his weapons holstered and Jeong’s PKM nowhere in sight. The reason all his weapons were away was because he was fumbling with an odd device.

Suddenly, behind him, a large, shadowy figure with glowing red eyes turned the corner. In that moment, several things happened rapidly. The first of which was me shouting a warning of some kind. In response Joseph, looked over his shoulder… and laughed.

This was quickly cut off by a spike suddenly appearing in his side with a metallic clanking sound. As Joseph stumbled and fell to his knees, there was a click of a gun without ammo attempting to fire. As I let off a few rounds, I heard Joseph say something that sounded an awful lot like, “Suck on this, asshole.”

Then, there was a roar, and the street above fell onto the giant Deet soldier. Meanwhile, the force of what seemed to be three explosions sent me stumbling. Farther up, I could hear someone fall into the river of sewage. I turned and looked. It was John.

“Fucking really?” he asked as we all struggled to get our balance. “It wasn’t enough that I get blinded, now I get to swim in the sewer water? Oh God, I think that was a turd. A turd just… wait… never mind, it’s climbing up my leg. It’s a rat.”

“How is a rat better?” asked the girl in a somewhat skeptical tone of voice. I noticed her voice was still a little shaky.

“I actually kind of like rats,” John said. “They’re actually kind of cute. Even pretty affectionate, too.” The silence from our guide conveyed her disgust and contempt far better than any words could.

Meanwhile, Sunny and I walked over to Joseph. “Hey,” he said, trying to stand up, “How are you guys doing?”

As I got closer, I noticed that the spike was actually quite hot. It seemingly had cauterized the wound. I could tell because smoke was leaking out from around the spikes. What actually was worrying me were his hands. Both of them were severely burned, which explained why he had so much trouble fiddling with the device. That device was lying on the floor in front of him. As I had guessed, it was a remote detonator. It was a fairly simple design, with a knob to arm and disarm it and a second button with a cap to set the explosives off, but even that would be hard to work with second and third degree burns all across your hands.

Joseph caught me looking at his hands. “Yes,” he said, “they’re as painful as they look. I picked up Jeong’s PK without thinking. I’m surprised it was still intact.”

I suddenly remembered how Jeong had been burned to a crisp by whatever had emitted that blue light. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” I asked. “Even if we get back up there…”

“Please…” Sunny said, obviously at the end of her rope, “Shut up and let me work on Joseph.” She paused, then added bitterly, “At least I might be able to save him.

“Sorry,” I said, “I…” I paused. I had no clue what to say. Jeong had been with Sunny since Hell Semester, maybe even from before that. Then, in the blink of an eye, he had been fried to a crisp. I couldn’t even imagine trying to save someone that burned while they screamed their head off, let alone someone who I had survived Hell Semester, finals and God knows what else with.

Suddenly, I heard some rubble shifting. I looked to where the sewer had collapsed and saw that the giant Deet soldier was still alive and struggling to get up. “…I’ll go over there and take care of him,” I finished lamely.

For about half a second, I felt much better. I had a job with a clear goal and simple steps. Then I realized that I was happy about shooting an injured human being and instantly felt sick to my stomach.

Somehow managing to not vomit, I stopped just out of reach of the giant’s massive arms. His arms had been pinned underneath when the ceiling had fell on him, but with the way he was struggling, I didn’t want to take any chances. After calmly lining his head up with my G-3’s crosshairs, I pulled the trigger. Simple, clean, effective.

Or it would have been. The giant paused, then he looked up, the glowing red eyes locking onto mine. Disturbed that a 7.62mm NATO round hadn’t even caused him to lose consciousness, I fired two more rounds into his face. Both hit.

After the report of my G-3 subsided, the… thing cocked his head, and in an eerily familiar voice said, “You’ll have to do better than that, you know.”


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Track 10: Can’t Find a Better Leader

This was bad. Joseph was our leader guy, yet he was pointing a gun at another member of our team. I reached for my M9. If Joseph didn’t point that gun somewhere else soon, I would shoot him. If he went so far as to fire, there was no way I’d let him live.

John, meanwhile, chose a more peaceful solution. “Jeeze, man,” he said, slowing the APC down, “I’ll stop. No need to freak out.”

“‘No need to freak out,’ huh?” Joseph asked. “We’re driving around in an enemy vehicle that probably has a dozen tracers and you be tellin’ me I shouldn’t freak out?” He was waving his gun around like a character in an action movie, not someone who had learned gun safety during Hell Semester. “Get out of the vehicle.”

John shrugged and opened the rear ramp. “Not a problem. Just so you know, there aren’t any doors in the cabin.”

Joseph nodded. He put his pistol back and grabbed his SCAR. “Whatever. Just get the fuck out.” He then stalked out of the APC.

We followed him out into the slowly fading day. We were now in a suburban area. It was a kind of weird area, at least for a New Englander like me. On either side were two-story buildings that were the kind you’d find in a city. However, just beyond the buildings and a few meters behind us the city-like area simply stopped and green fields began. I had rarely been anywhere where civilization just… ended.

Of course, the cheaply-made buildings seemed to have been hastily evacuated. There were clothes, toys, electronics, luggage, and various other items scattered about. A farm tractor had been tipped over in the middle of the road as well. In the distance, we could hear the sounds of a pitched battle. It was so intense it had begun to sound like one of those videos that plays certain sounds over and over again to form a song, with the chatter of automatic weapons being the rhythm, the thud of cannon fire being the bass, and the sound of larger explosions as the beat.

In short, it was the sort of situation silencers are actually good for. If I fired my G-3 and hostiles were just around the corner, there was a good chance they might think it was just more gunfire from deep within the heart of the city.

“All right,” Joseph said, “Let’s move out. Everyone, guns up.”

We began advancing into the city in a single-file line. After a few minutes, I noticed that Joseph had taken off his rebreather. My first thought was to just leave it alone. I didn’t want to start another fight with Joseph. Then I remembered that Joseph was slow to get his mask up, plus the dose he had gotten seemed to have seriously damaged his brain, perhaps permanently.

“Joseph?” I asked hesitantly. “Is there a particular reason you don’t have your mask on?”

Joseph halted and everyone took a deep breath. He turned to me, about to scream, then paused. His face slowly turned from one of rage to one of thoughtful contemplation. Finally, he said, “No reason.” He then pulled rebreather on and we continued on our way.

This was… disturbing to say the least. The one good thing I could think of that had come out of this was now Joseph would think before he did something to lower morale. On the other hand, as well as being increasingly volatile, he might hesitate at a key moment. That, somehow, was scarier than him flipping out and shooting one of us.

I was pondering these thoughts when we saw something dart into a building. Joseph motioned for us to stop. We had come to the first four-way intersection since we had started walking. Now, buildings were starting to get higher than two stories. Yet, the signs of the chaotic evacuation were now more intense.

The building that the shape had vanished into, a four-story building of some sort with a shop at the bottom, was in particularly bad shape. The display windows for the shop had been completely shattered, and the shelves inside had been almost completely looted. However, the shape hadn’t gone into the shop, but the entrance to the apartments or offices above.

Joseph signaled Jeong and Kyle to move to the corner and cover the streets to the left and right. He then ordered me across the street, then John, then Sunny. He then followed us. After the four of us were across, Joseph motioned Kyle and Jeong across as well.

When we were all across, Joseph motioned me towards the door. He wanted me on point as we breached. As our other squad mates pulled security, Joseph counted down from three. When he hit one, I burst inside.

What I found was a small hallway with an alcove for mail cubbies. The entirety of it was bare concrete and dimly lit. I moved to the end of the hall as quickly and quietly as I could, doing my best not to trip over the abandoned detritus left behind. As I did, I heard the telltale noises of the rest of the team follow me. At the end was a rickety staircase to my left. I quickly took it, making sure to avoid a few suitcases and loose items that had been abandoned.

I got to the second-floor landing. I looked back to Joseph for direction. He moved past me, aiming his SCAR-H up the stairs to the next level. “Search this floor,” he said quietly.

I nodded, then moved out onto the landing. There were six rooms, three on each side. “John, Sunny,” I said, “you take that side. Kyle and I will take the other. Jeong, cover us.”

Just as I was about to breach into the first room, through the sounds of the distant battle, I heard a relatively quiet thump. It definitely wasn’t an explosion, and it was so close I was pretty sure if I got inside the room, I’d figure out what caused it. To my chagrin, it took me a couple tries to kick the door down. When I got into the room, I saw that the room I was in was a small studio apartment that was completely full. There were two bunk beds and one double. There was barely room for the kitchen and table.

I quickly noticed that a window was opened. After confirming the room was clear, I moved over to it and looked out. In the distance, the sun was slowly setting, but the full effect was blocked by another building. Below me, there was a dumpster that had its lid somewhat bowed in.

“Well,” I said quietly, “it looks like our observer made his or her getaway.”

Kyle joined me at the window and followed my gaze. “Yeah,” he said, MP-7 aimed at the floor, “looks that way.”

The rest of the search went on like this. Eventually, we had cleared all the stories. I was impressed at how dirty, small, and densely populated the rooms in the building were, and a little unnerved by the fact that there was only one fire escape that only served the apartments on the opposite end of the stairwell.

Meeting back up, we reported our findings. The place had been evacuated in a big hurry, the electricity and water still worked, and apart from us, there was no sign of life either in here or in any of the surrounding buildings.

“Of course,” I said, “that doesn’t mean those invisible fuckers aren’t still watching our every move.” Ever since Hell Semester, I had been having issues with paranoia. Mostly because I had been doing spy work for UNIX, the international Parahuman law enforcement agency. It hadn’t helped that I had been right to be paranoid: the administration at NIU had known about me before I had even set foot on the island. Now, invisible jackasses could be watching my every move, even standing in the same room as me, and I wouldn’t even know it.

“Or not,” John said, “I mean, the energy required to turn someone invisible has got to be massive. We can’t be worth the cost of having those cloaker guys follow us 24/7.”

We stared at him for a bit. Then Jeong spoke up. “Listen,” he said, “if you’re going to try and reassure us, can you at least be better at it? Because you’ve probably jinxed it so that one is standing right in the center of this circle.”

“Actually,” I said, glad I could offer good news, “I saw one of them turn invisible. If you look closely, there’s this sort of shimmer… like a bubble where they’re supposed to be. You can’t see it from far off, but you can kind of see it from up close.”

Joseph nodded. “Good to know.” He paused. “Anyway… I think we should stop here for the night. This is a very defensible building, and I think that… I think that I need to rest.” I said nothing, but probably looked worried. The effects from whatever Joseph had taken were obviously still clouding his already questionable judgement. Joseph continued on, either not noticing the concerned looks everyone was giving him or doing a good job of pretending not to. “Normally, I’d say that our best bet to find out what’s going on would be to move during the night and use our goggles, but based on the sounds outside and the tech the Dragon’s Teeth have displayed so far, I would say that we have definitely lost that advantage. We’ll get some rest, and continue the mission in the morning.”

He smiled. “In the meantime, let’s have an actual meal.”

I suddenly realized that I hadn’t had anything to eat all day. “What are you planning?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “electricity works and the shades in that room are pretty thick.” He pointed to a room on a corner that only looked out onto an alleyway and other buildings. “We just pull the shades on that room, turn on its lights and its stove, and I cook up a little something while the rest of you stand guard.”

For the first time, I actually felt like Joseph was doing something right. Of course, that could have been my stomach and hatred of Power Sludge talking. Still, morale is a very real factor and hot meals and rest can do wonders for performance.

It took a while, but after roughly an hour and a half of watching the sun set and listening to the sounds of fighting, Joseph called us in to dinner. As we took our seats on the various beds, Jeong remarked, “You know, I think it was a good idea to call it a night. The fighting actually seems to be getting worse.”

“More importantly,” John said, “it isn’t getting closer. I think we’re going to have a nice night.” I, being much more pessimistic, knocked on wood when John said that. John shot me an annoyed look. “Really, Nate?” he asked.

Ignoring him, I took a sip of the soup. “Hey, Joseph,” I said, “this stuff’s actually pretty good. What is it?”

“Beef and onion soup, mon,” Joseph said. “It gets even better if I add some pepper and onion salt. It isn’t really a traditional dish, just something I made because I was messing around one day.”

“Yeah,” Sunny said, “Seniors get kitchens in their rooms. Perk of surviving this school for four years.”

“So you guys graduated?” John asked. “Any tips or tricks for us recent fresh meat?”

The seniors laughed. “Stay in school,” Jeong said. “Every year, the classes get more and more fun. Of course, they also get harder.”

“So, it’s like a videogame?” I asked.

“Exactly!” Jeong said.

“More than you know,” Kyle added. “I heard from an engi… er, someone from the engineering school, that they’re going to make the kill house courses more realistic.”

“Oh yeah,” Sunny said, “you’re one of the first legacy students, aren’t you?”

Kyle nodded. “Gramps taught at NIU,” he said, somewhat noncommittally. “There are some benefits, as well as some downsides.”

“Like gene therapy?” Sunny asked excitedly. “I mean, I’m fine with my body, but I have to admit, that was a really cool process you…”

“Please,” Kyle said, “can we talk about something else? I don’t like talking about that part of my life.”

Sunny blushed and nodded vigorously. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized. “I wasn’t thinking.”

Now I was intrigued. Kyle obviously had some sort of secret. Both Sunny and May Riley knew it, and Sunny had just hinted that it had something to do with NIU’s advanced medicine. If it was a disease, it would have to be a pretty embarrassing one, as Kyle didn’t like talking about it. Then I remembered something.

A little after we had come back from Christmas vacation, I had overheard a conversation between Kyle and Richard, another student NIU had recruited to feed the Grenzefrontier misleading information. In that conversation, Richard had deliberately called Kyle “Karen.” Could Kyle be trans?

I obviously couldn’t ask him. That would be even more awkward than asking someone if they were gay. That’s when I remembered how one of my friends back at college, an aspiring hit man named Cross Castellan, had been drunkenly feeling up John and another friend dragging his wasted ass to our dorm after Hell Semester ended. The next morning, he had been more than a little anxious to spend time with Doc, the Found Boys’ sarcastic medic.

Meanwhile, the conversation was sort of dying down. The talk became less and less substantial, until we were just talking about the weather. Finally, I asked, “So, who’s taking first watch? Because I’d be up for it.”

“You took first watch last night,” Joseph said. “Take some rest. Jeong and I got a full night’s sleep last night. We’ll take first watch and wake you and Kyle up for second. Does that sound fair?”

Jeong nodded. “I like that plan. Gives us a chance to catch up.”

“Thanks, man,” I said, realizing that this was his way of making up for today. “Really appreciate it.” Now, I was starting to actually be thankful that Joseph had been gassed. If he hadn’t been gassed, he wouldn’t be thinking as hard on the consequences of his actions, and he’d continue doing petty shit in a combat situation. Now, he was considering the consequences of his actions, trying to salvage the mission.

Between that, the hot meal, and the realization that the Dragon’s Teeth tech had to have some limits, I was feeling pretty good. Things were really starting to turn around.


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Track 9: Shipping Off to Yonan

We eventually decided the best thing to do would be to search the Korean vehicles, then see if any of the Dragon’s Teeth APCs still worked. In the tank, we discovered among the charred remains of the crew a working radio. Combined with the Dragon’s Teeth APC that was randomly changing from pitch black to forest camo, and John said we could get it working.

“You know,” John said, as he was hotwiring the tank’s radio into the APC, “we need to think up a cool nickname for these guys.” He had taken the dashboard off with a knife and was fitting cables together. “How about Deets?”

“Whatever,” I said. “Are you done yet?”

As if in response to my question, the radio crackled to life. John smirked smugly. “That answer your question?”

Before I could answer, Jeong cut in, “They’re saying that they managed to halt the Deets off at Yonan!”

“Where’s that?” John asked.

“From the sound of it,” Sunny said, “all we have to do is turn around and follow this road. If we do that, it should take us to a relatively quiet area.”

“I can direct you there,” Jeong said, getting into the co-pilot’s seat.

As he did so, I noticed that the co-pilot’s seat had a joystick and a computer screen of some sort. “You know,” I said, pointing to the joystick, “I think that may be the turret control.”

“Nice,” Jeong said. “Where’s the radio? I want to listen in on these guys.”

“They don’t have one,” John said. “Anyway, let’s get moving.”

We began to drive away, moving along the road at a decent pace. The engine must have been electric, because the vehicle didn’t make a sound. Eventually, the scenery on the side of the road became less hilly and more farm-like. We could also see the occasional ruined vehicle.

I busied myself taking pictures of the interior. It was made of the same black synthetic as the Deet guns and very Spartan, even going so far as to eschew seats, instead having handlebars on the ceiling. That probably meant it could double as a transport for materiel. Judging by the rails on the floor, seats were an option, as well as medical beds. More slots on the wall indicated that medical equipment could be stored on the wall. On the rear ramp, in medium-sized white letters, was written “Vmk-4 Charon Multi-Roll Combat Vehicle.” Someone was a little overconfident. Seriously, your weapon has to be pretty damn impressive to get away with naming it after the mythological figure who took the dead to the underworld.

I was distracted by Sunny. “So,” she asked, “John, you, Kyle and Killer were in the Freshman class this year. What the hell happened in Hell Semester this year?”

John shrugged. “I honestly have no clue,” he said. “For all I know, this was just another Hell Semester. Maybe me and Nate surviving was unexpected, but… What’s so funny?”

Sunny and Jeong were both laughing. “Listen,” Jeong said, after he was done laughing, “an over-privileged American or two playing hero is expected, but to have people like The Black Death, Ricardo Montana, Camila Reyes, and The Found Boys all in the same year? Those guys were legends before they even got here and there are at least a dozen more I haven’t even mentioned.”

“Ok,” I said, “I knew Ricardo, and I sort of met Camila during the Grenzefrontier invasion, but I haven’t heard of the others.”

“The Black Death,” Sunny said, “was the daughter of moderate Hutus in Rwanda. Her parents died trying to bring justice to some of the more sadistic actors in the genocide. She… kind of snapped, and walked into the plains with some water, food, a machete, a few kitchen knives, and her dad’s SMLE. Over the next few years, Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi began dying. Official figures say her kill count is at least double Simo Häyhä’s, and most people say that’s low-balling it. Killer, you stood on a platform with her a couple times. Her name is…”

“Oro Okoro,” I said. “John and I did more than stand on a platform with her.” It wasn’t bragging. It was more like shock. “I mean, I knew she was cold, but I had no idea… I ate with her.”

“You also impressed her,” Jeong said. “You also impressed The Found Boys. I guess crawling through assault rifle fire and forty-mil can even impress people who ripped off Kony.”

“Hey,” I said, “they were some of the few people at that fucking hell hole who didn’t hate my guts. I thought I’d pay them back. You’d do something similar for a friend, right?”

“What about Mr. Giggles?” Sunny asked. “That guy didn’t even exist before he wound up at NIU, then he starts killing people in groups of fifteen with his bare hands. How did anyone survive him?”

Ulfric Trollbjorn, also known as “Mr. Giggles,” was a baby-faced mountain of a man with a constant smile and a penchant for violence. I had given him his nickname because he almost never spoke, instead he had a high-pitched giggle that he’d emit. That, combined with his inhuman strength, love of killing, and, more terrifyingly, his uncanny ability to read people, and he was one of the most feared people in our year.

“That,” Kyle said, “is very easy. He gets bored. That’s how I survived. There were eight others, I just played dead while he pulled one of them apart like a wishbone.” I instantly gained new respect for Kyle. The only other person I had known to survive Ulfric was Bai Feng. Funnily enough, she might have been one of the people mentioned next.

“Man,” Jeong said, “When we were there, it was just Joseph. We didn’t have ferals who grew up training with the SAS, weird Chinese cultists, homicidal giants or popcorn-selling sociopaths.” He paused. “Actually, we did have some weird cult guys who were always recruiting and Spacey the Moon Jew, but apart from that, it was mostly just your average collection of criminals, psychos and terrorists.”

“Wait,” I said, “Joseph already had a rep before coming?”

“Yeah,” Jeong said. “Almost everyone who had been to an orientation knew him as the guy who had saved the Pres’s life in Jamaica. We were pretty tight with him back then.”

“Were?” John asked. “What happened?”

“I can guess,” Kyle said. “He got assigned The President as an advisor, right?” When everyone asked how he’d know that at once, he said, “My grandad was one of the first professors hired. He also was one of the first to retire, but he still goes back to the island to hang out with the faculty.”

“Well,” Sunny said, “I wish we had known how things worked because Joe kind of… drifted away.” She shook her head. “You think that serving through Hell Semester would bond you forever, but life at NIU tends to drive people apart.”

“I can understand that,” John said. “I mean, not that I’ve experienced it or anything.” Something told me that wasn’t quite the truth. I shrugged it off. I had enough to worry about at the moment.

I stopped paying attention to the conversation for a while as the APC trundled along. I missed my family back home, but had no real way of relating to them. I missed my friends back at school and wondered if I would see them again, or if I would end up dead. Hell, I missed being able to change my underwear. Any college student will tell you that after a day, they feel completely gross. I was going to be in them for weeks, potentially.

As I ruminated on this, I noticed that Joseph was starting to open his eyes for brief periods of time. On the one hand, that was good. We needed all the people on this expedition awake and alive. On the other, Joseph was a liability before he got gassed. Now, he had been exposed to a substance that had ruined the mind of some poor sod. If Joseph woke up again, he could be mentally unfit to lead, and still constitutionally incapable of stepping down.

Instead, I turned back to my investigations of the vehicle. I suddenly noticed a box that I hadn’t seen before. I took off the lid and found some more assault rifles, plus what looked to be submachineguns and quick-change barrels for the rifles.

“Now these,” I said, “are interesting. Can someone film me?” Kyle nodded and pulled out his cPhone. When he began recording, I pulled out a rifle and each of the two types of magazine: drum and banana clip. “The mags seem to be quad-stacked. Not sure how reliable that is. You’ve got a choice between…” aiming the gun down and away from everyone else, I slid in the drum. It went in easily, with barely any noise despite the force with which I had loaded it. The ammo counter below the red dot sight instantly went from 0 to 100. “…one hundred round drums or…” I looked for a magazine release. Bizarrely, it was a button in front of the trigger guard, indicated by a white diagram. I pressed it and the magazine shot out.

“Whoa!” I said, surprised at how it had been repelled out. “Anyway, the banana has…” I slipped the curved magazine in and checked the readout. “…sixty rounds of caseless ammunition of an unknown caliber. Safety and fire selection are M-16 style. All controls are ambidextrous. Plus, there’s the grenade launcher, which I’m pretty sure is detachable.” I gave the barrel a twist. “These barrels can also be changed for different roles as well, maybe even during a battle.”

“Can I see?” Sunny asked.

“Sure,” I said, handing it to her. “Next up is the SMG. Judging by the double charging handles, this is also caseless. It seems to be similar in size and shape to an MP-5K with an MP-5 style telescoping stock and a folding foregrip, but it has a much more squareish shape. Again, like its big brother, it has M-16 style fire selector and no provision for iron sights, just a detachable reflex scope.” I rooted around in the box for magazines and inserted one. “Only seems to have room for sixty-round magazines. In yet another similarity to their big brother, they’re quadrastacked.”

I considered it for a minute. “I’m half-tempted to leave our guns here and take some Deet weapons.”

“I don’t know,” Kyle said. “They’re weird as fuck, use unreliable feed methods, and have an inherently fragile kind of sight. Might be best to leave them.”

As he said this, we went over a bump. Suddenly, Joseph, who had been lying on the floor, opened his eyes. For a moment, there was silence. Then he sat up and pulled out a silenced Mk. 23, a look of panic in his eyes. He quickly aimed it at me, the red light from the laser pointer making me blink.

“Joseph…” Sunny said.

In response, Joseph turned to face her and Kyle, still terrified. Then he relaxed. “Sorry, Sunny,” he said. ”I thought…”

He trailed off, looking a little lost. “Doesn’t matter. It’s good to see you again. What happened?” He paused, slowly getting to his feet. He looked really unsteady and I noticed that his eyes were bloodshot. “Where are we?” This next question seemed particularly hostile and suspicious.

“We’re on the way to Yonang,” Jeong said. “The fighting’s apparently gone house to house. We thought we’d do a bit of recon, see what’s going on.” At this point, I realized that voices on the radio were still chattering away and I could hear gunfire and explosions in the distance.

“That is acceptable,” Joseph said. “What are we in?”

“Huh?” Jeong asked.

“What. Are. We. Riding. In?” Joseph’s tone of voice was now barely controlled. I noticed he still gripped his huge pistol, and it was with such a tight grip that the veins in his hands were bulging.

“A Dragon’s Teeth APC,” Jeong said. “We thought…”

“Stop the vehicle,” Joseph said.

“We’re almost to Yonang,” Jeong said. “If we wait five…”

“STOP THE FUCKING CAR, MON!” Joseph yelled, pressing the barrel of his Mk. 23 into the side of Jeong’s head. This was not good.


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Track 8: Better Than Any Seen Do It

One of the camouflaged shapes I had seen wriggling up the hill suddenly stood up or knelt (it was hard to tell) and raised a dark black object. Then there was the ptoomp! of a grenade launcher.

Below, John called out, “Gas!” His voice was slightly muffled as he tried to fit a rebreather over his face. I was wondering why he thought there would be gas. Then the grenade hit. At the time, the four on the ground were behind one of the strange APCs, with Joseph in the lead. The grenade hit the ground in between the one they were investigating and the one that was covered in strange, writhing objects. There was a sound that was a combination of a thump and a hiss as the grenade hit, and then a shimmery, transparent gas coated the air around the two APCs.

As I got my rebreather on, I noticed that Sunny and Jeong had listened to John and the three of them were scrambling to get their rebreathers on. Joseph, however, hadn’t. As the rattle of gunfire began to rattle down, he just stood dumbfounded. Then he began to scream.

As he began to claw at his face, I yelled through my rebreather, “We need to give them some cover, right now.”

My statement was punctuated by the crack of Kyle’s M-21. “Already on it,” he said. He fired again.

I snapped down the 3x sight on my G-3 and drew a bead on the enemy position. As soon as I saw them, I instantly realized they had to be Dragon’s Teeth. Their helmets obviously had some sort of rebreather built in and their visors had an odd T-shape to them. I took aim and fired. The one I had been aiming for staggered back. I shot him again, and this time he fell down.

“What the hell kind of armor are they using?” I asked. Kyle was about to answer, but then the Dragon’s Teeth soldiers returned fire. We ducked down, but the bullets had come very close. To my great concern, it seemed like the sand bags were starting to dissolve.

Kyle noticed it too. “Come on,” he said through his rebreather and beginning to turn around, “we need to get out of here.” I grunted in affirmative, then began crawling down the hill with him.

Once we were down the hill, I said, “Let’s flank these assholes.”

“Excuse me?” Kyle asked. In the distance, I could hear the chattering of Jeong’s PKM and Sunny’s AK. Joseph was still screaming, but it seemed like someone had gotten his rebreather on.

“It can work,” I said. “We go behind the Korean roadblock up ahead, then swing around and hit them in the side.”

Kyle stared at me. “That may actually work,” he said.

We began to hurry, moving as fast as we could. We entered the valley behind the ruined North Korean Army vehicles. I peeked above the tank. There on the hill were about five or six Dragon’s Teeth soldiers. I couldn’t see the soldiers very well, just their muzzle flashes. “This seems to be a good angle,” I said. “You want to set up here while I get closer?”

Kyle nodded and moved forward as I hurried to the next armored car. As I did so, I saw that only Jeong was firing at the Dragon’s Teeth soldiers. Sunny was seemingly firing at something coming from further up the convoy and I couldn’t see John or Joseph at all. I could hear all of them, though. The only one who sounded in trouble was Joseph, so I wasn’t that worried.

By the time I had gotten to the last car, Kyle had made his presence known to the Dragon’s Teeth soldiers, and a few had turned their attention on him. That’s when they decided that enough was enough. Four grenade launchers fired in rapid succession, two of which hit near where Kyle was crouched. He grunted in pain, then got up to fire.

I turned around and ran, trying to get to the best position I could, ignoring the redoubled fire from the Dragon’s Teeth. Finally, I got onto the side of the hill where the Dragon’s Teeth soldiers were. I raised my G-3, looked down the 3x scope… and saw that four of the six appeared to be reloading.

Choosing one who had almost finished inserting a drum magazine into his bullpup assault rifle, I lined up my crosshairs with his head… and fired. Again, the smoke from my gun caused me to blink. In the exact instant that happened, I heard Kyle’s rifle. When I opened my eyes, my target was down and another Dragon’s Teeth soldier was clutching his throat. The bad news was they were all turning to aim at me, and the first one I had shot was already getting to his feet.

Determined to make my sacrifice count, I turned to one of the others and double-tapped him. This time, I kept my eyes open and saw him fall. Then the remaining four opened fire.

In a desperate attempt to live a bit longer, I threw myself to the ground. Amazingly enough, it worked. If I had done it a tiny bit later, though, I would have been completely perforated. Before the Dragon’s Teeth could adjust their aim, though, Jeong opened up with his PKM again. This time, he actually managed to make one fall over.

At that point, our opponents decided that they had had enough. All six of them, including the one clutching his throat, got up and ran. Jeong, Kyle, Sunny, and I half-heartedly continued to fire at them. We even managed to hit one or two.

Finally, they were all gone and silence reigned. Even Joseph had stopped screaming into his rebreather. The one Dragon’s Teeth soldier who didn’t get away, the one Kyle had shot in the throat, was lying in the grass. After enough time had passed, I got up, switched to my reflex sight, and began walking towards him.

“Hey, Killer!” Jeong called from behind one of the APCs. “Is everything all clear up there?”

“There’s one guy they left behind,” I said. “I’m checking it out.”

“Roger that,” Jeong said, and moved to the next APC. After he did so, Sunny took his former position. Both of them aimed their guns up at the hill.

“How’s John?” I asked.

“I’m fine!” John called out. “Just had to restrain a large, muscular guy jacked up on whatever that fucking mist was.”

When I was finally standing above the Dragon’s Teeth soldier, I saw that there was a trail of blood from where he had first been shot to where he had finally fallen. His uniform was stained with it and the red liquid had pooled where he had finally fallen. One hand was still gripped around his own neck in an attempt to stop the bleeding. The other loosely gripped his rifle.

My first thought upon seeing that much blood was that the soldier couldn’t have survived. Then, realizing how much that sounded like a supervillain in a comic book gloating before he got his face punched in by the hero, I pumped four more rounds into him. “All clear!” I called back after scanning the forest. “You guys want to come up and see what we accomplished, or do you want me to drag him back down?”

“Wait,” Jeong said, “we only got one?”

I looked around again. “Well,” I said, “judging by the blood trails, at least another one might be dead very soon if he doesn’t get medical attention. Apart from that, I’m only seeing one body.”

“I’m sorry,” Jeong said, “but there should be several of them spread out in small chunks. Are you sure…?”

“Jeong,” I said, somewhat annoyed, “there’s one dead guy up here, and he’s mostly intact except for the fact that his blood’s not in his body anymore.”

“I’m coming up,” Jeong said.

“I’m staying down here,” Sunny said. “If Joseph wakes up, John might need some help.”

I watched Jeong run up to me. As he did, I noticed Kyle calmly making his way towards us as well. When Jeong finally got to the scene, he said, “There should be more bodies.”

“Tell me about it,” I said. “I shot one of them in the chest, and he just got up like nothing happened.”

“I fired at least a hundred rounds from my gun,” Jeong said. “There should be more bodies.” He looked genuinely haunted.

I shrugged. Maybe the enormity of what had happened hadn’t hit. Maybe watching Ulfric ripping someone’s arm off and beating others with it had rendered me immune to panic. “Well, there aren’t,” I said. “Must have some pretty good armor.”

“Are you serious?” Jeong asked. “If it had been us, we’d be in fucking bloody chunks of meat all over the hill!”

“Jeong,” I said, “take a breath.”

He did. Then, realizing what he had been doing, he took several more. “Ok,” he said, “I’m fine. I’m fine now.”

After mentally filing away that Jeong could panic, I said, “So, his gun looks pretty interesting, doesn’t it?” I walked over to it, tucking my own rifle under my shoulder while I reached for it. The gun was the same black as the APC, but considerably more blocky. It also seemed to have cocking handles on either side, removable underbarrel grenade launcher, ammunition display, and special scope mount upon which a red dot sight was mounted. It did not, I notice, seem to have any iron sights. “Man,” I said, “this is pretty light. I think it’s made out of the same synthetic that the Grenzefrontier makes their guns out of.”

“The Grenzefrontier uses synthetics?” Jeong asked. “I thought they were still pretty much stuck in World War II.”

“For some things,” I said, “but I got my hands on one of their SMGs when they ambushed me on my way home over Christmas break.” I handed it to Jeong. “You can tell it’s the same substance due to how ridiculously light it is.

Jeong grabbed it. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s really light.” He paused. “Why does it have four cocking handles?”

I shrugged. Jeong, deciding to just mess around, pulled one of the forward ones. Nothing happened, except for a slightly quieter clack noise than you usually hear on a gun. He then pulled one of the rear ones. A silver-colored bullet was ejected, landing near me.

I bent down and picked it up. It was too light to be silver, possibly aluminum or titanium and definitely a hollowpoint, but there was something weirder about it.

“Hey, Jeong,” I said, holding it out to him, “where’s the case on this thing?”

After taking a look at it, he said, “I actually think it might be caseless. That’d save a bunch on space and make it lighter and more powerful. Combined with the fact that it’s a hollow point and this is just nasty. Of course, if you’re triggering your frag grenades by packing them with hallucinogenic gas, you might as well have your standard issue ammunition be specially designed to make people bleed.”

“So… would it not pierce our armor, then?” I asked.

Jeong shrugged. “If it was from a normal army,” he said, “I would say it’d be unlikely, but I’d advise that you not bet your life on it.”

“But since it’s the Dragon’s Teeth,” I said, “I should assume it would go through my armor’s front plate and out my rear plate at three hundred meters.”

“Pretty much,” Jeong said. “That’s almost as bad as the spiders?”

I looked at him blankly. “Spiders?” I asked.

“I’ll show you,” he said, dropping the Dragon’s Teeth assault rifle. I followed him down the hill. When we were on our way down, I noticed that the APC that had been writhing was now completely still. When we got behind the convoy, I saw why.

Between the APC that had sheltered Jeong, Sunny, John and Joseph and the writhing APC, the ground was littered with black carcasses, a few of which occasionally still fizzed and sparked. One was worryingly close to where John was restraining Joseph.

When I got closer, I could make out details. It really was a mechanical spider, with a variety of power tools on various “arms.” When I bent down, John said, “Yeah, that thing tried to jump on Joseph. Sunny shot it.”

From behind me, Sunny shuddered. “Those things are creepy. They’re fast, they’re silent, and they move like something from a horror movie.”

“What’s this?” Kyle asked.

“A mechanical spider,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Did it really have to be spiders?” he asked. “I fucking hate spiders.” Instantly, everyone began talking.

I rubbed the bridge of my nose as people slowly began to get more and more panicked. I didn’t really want to deal with what was freaking people out at the moment, partly because a part of me was gibbering about invisible people watching our every move. “So,” I said, gathering my wits, “we’re in enemy territory, we’re in an extraordinarily exposed position, we’ve fought off an enemy attack and can expect more to show up, plus one of us has been incapacitated by an unknown hallucinogenic.”

I paused for a moment to make sure everyone was listening. They were. “Now, we can survive. We just need to think of a plan in a calm and collected manner and we can get out of this fucking hellhole.” I suddenly remembered Sunny and Jeong were North Korean. “No offense.”

“You kidding?” Jeong asked. “I have never seen a worse place than this country.”

“Anyway,” I said, “does anyone have any suggestions?” No one said a word. I sighed. This was not going to be a fun trip.


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Track 7: Into the Unknown

“We’re leaving,” Joseph said as we walked into the house through the hole. I followed, not sure what I could do if one of those invisible fuckers attacked.

“Where are we going?” Jeong asked. It was honestly a reasonable question. If we went into the hills, the cloaking people could follow us. If we stole another boat, they could just wait in the hold and murder us at their leisure. Of course, they obviously didn’t want to kill us just yet.

“For the moment,” Joseph said, “anywhere but here. We head into the hills, then hope we lose them. After that, I want to take a look at this.” He held up the folder that our invisible friend had dropped down. “In the meantime, we need to leave.”

I had once heard that you shouldn’t ever run from something and instead always run to somewhere. This was definitely running away. Putting distance between us The Dragon’s Teeth was a good idea, but the hills were kind of foresty, which meant that these invisible units could climb the trees and ambush us from above. However, I didn’t want to bring it up, as the last time I had questioned our fearless leader’s orders, he had kind of freaked out.

Instead, I headed out with everyone else. As we began to head out, Kyle handed me my cPhone. “You dropped this,” he said. “Wouldn’t want to lose it.”

“Thanks,” I said.

We then moved out in a single-file line with uneven spacing. Again, John and I were near the back. Kyle, however, was also hanging back. “So,” he asked, “what do we think about our situation?”

“I don’t think we should be talking about this right now,” I said, “especially if this conversation going in the direction I think it’s going.”

“Definitely not around Joseph, right?” Kyle asked.

“Seriously,” I whispered, “we can’t… do that thing you suggested.”

“He might not give us a choice!” Kyle hissed back. “I’ve been keeping out of his way for two weeks, but he keeps coming after me. Trust me, it’s a very real possibility. Especially with the way you’ve been acting.”

Eventually, we came to a stop. “This is a good spot,” Joseph said. It wasn’t. We were in a clearing in the middle of the forest. If The Dragon’s Teeth were good climbers, they could easily climb to the top of the tree and drop down in the middle of our group. They could also come from literally any direction. Again, I said nothing.

Apparently, Joseph just wanted to get a good look at the folder. He set down his SCAR-H and removed the folder from the plastic bag. After looking at the contents for a bit, he said, “Jeong, can you read this?”

“Sure,” he said, after taking a look at the contents. “Looks like basic orders.” He read it in silence for a bit, then said, “Ok, the basic gist is that a small mechanized infantry unit was sent into the town because of weird Dragon’s Teeth activity. There was also some armor support. On the way over, there was a lot of activity from what the commander officer calls ‘Ninjas.’ I’m assuming that they’re the cloaking guys. Anyway, for a few days, everything’s normal, apart from Ninja sightings.”

“And then?” I asked.

“And then, probably the day our ride left port, they get word that a bunch of bases with weird nonsense names have fallen,” Jeong said. “Thirty minutes later, they hear gunfire from… oh, I’d say that direction and a radio message comes in saying that an enemy force is making a determined attack and is heading towards the town. The strange thing, and the commander makes a note of it, is that this unit that’s crumbling is one he didn’t know was in the area.”

“What does it say about the battle?” Joseph asked.

“I don’t know,” Jeong said. “He’s not making any sense. Apart from something about gas, he just kind of rambles like he’s describing a fever dream or hallucination. Then, judging by the ink stain, someone literally drags him away.”

“Could they be using some sort of hallucinogenic gas?” I asked. “The soldier we were talking to did seem a little… out of it.”

“Good thing we brought our rebreathers,” John said.

“Hopefully,” Sunny said, “our rebreathers can filter this gas out.” We all looked down at the ground. I don’t know about anyone else, but so far, getting hit by that gas did not seem fun. I wondered how long it lasted, or if you could ever really come back from something like that.

Suddenly, there was the sound of a twig breaking. Everyone stood up. Sunny, whose ears were the least damaged from the recent skirmish, pointed in the direction of the sound. Joseph nodded, and she began moving forwards. I was second.

We were heading down hill. As we did, I noticed that the sound of snapping twigs was slow and deliberate, almost as if someone was deliberately leading us in a certain direction. “Hey guys…” I began, trying to warn the rest of the party, but Joseph shushed me.

Before I could protest, a large metal object with lots of moving parts skittered past Sunny and through the bushes. After she collected herself, Sunny said, “That… was not North Korean.”

“I figured,” I said, “but what was it?”

“It looked…” Joseph said from behind me, “…it looked like a mechanical spider about the size of a Doberman.”

“Wait,” John said from somewhere near the back, “that can’t be right. Do you know how hard it is to make a vehicle that uses legs? There’s literally dozens of videos showing robots with multi-million dollar budgets falling flat on their faces.”

“Yeah, but compared to turning invisible, walking on six legs would be easy,” Sunny said as she scanned the forest.

“And besides,” I said, “this local supervillain back home, Nigeru, could do it. Not as well as The Dragon’s Teeth, but that spider car he made…”

“Yeah,” John said, “but Nigeru’s a fucking supervillain. And these guys…”

“Obviously have access to tech he couldn’t even dream of,” Joseph said. “We follow the little blighter and take it apart.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, “Because…”

“Are you questioning my orders?” Joseph asked.

“…This feels like a trap,” I finished. “But you can do what you want.”

Joseph stared at me for a moment. “We are going to follow the enemy. If you are too cowardly, you can stay behind.” He turned to Sunny. “You’re the tracker. Lead the way.”

We began following Sunny. The entire time, I was considering turning around and shooting Joseph. Especially since he was probably going to kill us all through incompetence. Eventually, we came to an area that, while not forested, was still pretty hilly. I also noticed that there was a strange smell nearby, like something burning.

I was several meters behind Sunny when she crested the hill. “This…” she said, “this is not good.”

We all hurried up to find out what she was talking about. On the top of the hill, someone had set up sandbags. The weaponry left behind indicated that they had been Korean. The bloodstains indicated that someone had killed them, then headed up the hill to drag their bodies away.

Below that terrifying scene was a valley, with a road running through it. We were by the side, and opposite us we could see other positions. At one end, two armored cars and a tank, all three Soviet or Chinese-made, had formed a roadblock. Several craters were spread out in front of the tank, and the tank itself was mostly melted. Disturbingly enough, the metal itself was burning. The two armored cars had been eliminated by more conventional means. One had been turned into Swiss cheese by gunfire, and the rear of the other resembled a blooming flower due to what I assumed to be cannon fire.

Strung out along the road was a convoy of vehicles that definitely weren’t North Korean. Most were jet black and completely disabled, but one of them seemed to be mostly intact, except for the fact that it would occasionally swap from forest camo to jet black. The vehicles seemed to trap light making it hard to make out any details, but it was clear that they were some sort of light APC with wheels and a cannon turret. They also had both a rear exit and sliding doors like my family’s minivan. I could see this because some had their rear doors open and one of the more damaged vehicles had both doors taken apart.

That vehicle in particular was interesting because something was writhing on it. In fact, it was the clang of the door closest to our position falling to the ground that attracted my attention, as well as the whine of power tools. As I watched, the other door fell as well. Eventually, something with multiple legs detached itself from the writhing black mask and began dragging the door to the rear of the strange convoy.

“Well,” I said, after a few minutes of watching the vehicle disintegrate, “this is… interesting.”

“Killer,” Joseph said, brushing past me, “you and Kyle stay up here. The rest of you, come with me. I want to find out what’s going on here.”

I began to protest, but instead said, “Yes, sir.”

Joseph looked at me, as if trying to catch some hint of resentment or sarcasm. He then left, motioning for everyone else to follow him. As the other four marched off, Kyle and I sat behind the sandbags.

“Man,” I asked, watching the rest of the team advance towards the convoy, “what the fuck is Joseph’s deal?”

“He’s one of the President’s personal picks,” Kyle said. “He tends to encourage a sense of self-importance and a love of status.”

“Why?” I asked. “If this is what it leads to, then that just seems… counter-productive.”

“Joseph’s actually pretty easy to manipulate,” Kyle said dryly, “providing you’re above him in rank. Which we’re not.”

“So,” I asked, “do all instructors have little networks, or is it just our beloved President?” I was half sarcastic. I expected that a professor would have something better to do than network with his or her students.

“Most of the smart ones,” Kyle said. “They know that they’re likely to get a dozen students who’re smarter than they could ever hope to be before they hit tenure. They’ve set it up so that the two most important faculty members in a student’s education are their recruiter and their academic advisor.”

“So we’re like some kind of trading card?” I asked.

“More like those virtual egg things, except more useful,” Kyle said, giving a casual shrug. “Students can always choose to switch advisors or not join in with a prof’s event. But yeah, we are kind of like that, except much more useful.”

Not sure what to do with this information, I scanned the surrounding area. I had plenty of questions. After all, this was an important facet of University life I had never known about. Finally, I said, “So, I guess Professor Krieger’s advisees don’t have many networking meetings?”

I was a weird case, apparently. Neither John nor I had been recruited by faculty. Instead, we had been approached by UNIX to go infiltrate NIU. However, we both had Karl Krieger, a demented lion-like man, as an advisor.

“You actually have weekly meetings,” Kyle said. “Since he was my recruiter and you’ve been avoiding him, he wanted me to pass on the message.” That was a fair assessment. Krieger might not be the scariest person I had ever encountered, but he was in the top five easily. Part of the reason for that was that he had implied he wanted to take down The President… and I believed he could.

“Couldn’t he tell me that himself?” I asked.

“He doesn’t want to scare you away,” Kyle said. “He wants you on a big project that you might not want to accept, you don’t have much love for him, plus he doesn’t have anything you want.” He paused. “Plus, because you’re such a wild card, he has to worry about what you’d do if you switched advisors.”

“Come on,” I said, “he’s not trying to avoid hurting my feelings. He’s not the type. His plans just got accelerated for some reason.”

Kyle shrugged. “You’d probably know more than me. Krieger usually likes to choose people that are either similar to him in some way or a complete underdog. That’s part of the reason why he pawned me off to Zemylachka.” Zemylachka was another extremely scary person as well as director of the Shadowhaven, a more spy-focused program back at NIU.

“How am I similar to Krieger?” I asked. Below, the rest of our group seemed to have decided to give the writhing APC a pass. I didn’t really blame them.

Kyle considered this. “Well…” he said, either trying to gauge my expression, avoid offending me, or both, “The only thing I can pin down is that you’re both… chaotic.”

I laughed. “And you aren’t just as unpredictable? Seriously, you’re kind of an enigma yourself.”

Kyle shook his head. “First off,” he said, “I said you were chaotic, not unpredictable. There’s a difference. Second, the reason you can’t predict me is because you don’t know me.

We lapsed into silence, both of us shocked at the venom in Kyle’s words. Instead, we scanned the hills opposite us. Suddenly, I saw movement. I was just about to point it out to Kyle when all hell broke loose.


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