Track 24: Old Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“I’m FINE!” Eliza said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you been drinking?” John asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?” Valkyrie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her face did not express amusement.


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Track 28: King of Wishful Thinking

“Don’t worry,” the SAS operative said, “We’ll find ‘er.” I shook my head vhemenently. “Listen, mate,” the operative said, “she was bleedin’ from ‘er eyes from the field. I’m surprised she’s even still standing.”

“Everything…” I said, “about her is… wrong. Find her.”

Eliza slung her rifle over her shoulder. “Right,” she said, “You need to stop talking.”

“She was trained as a ninja,” John said, “and she knows this castle and the surrounding area inside and out. How long have we got again?”

“Half an hour,” the operative said with a sigh. “You’re right.” He then put a hand to an ear and said, “Package is secure. We need a stretcher over ‘ere. Be advised, Maiden is armed, dangerous, and active in the area. Repeat, Maiden is on site.”

“Right,” Eliza said, “we’ve got to get him moving.”

“Did…” I began.

“Shut up, Nate,” Eliza said.

“Did you find Bai?”

Eliza stared at me. Then she said, “Shut the fuck up, Nate.” The dangerous look on John’s face made me think he seconded that sentiment.

“She’s…” I gasped out, “another… loose end. Just as dangerous. Also, what about… Jen?”

“Jen and company are heading back home,” John said. “I’m going with her. We haven’t found Bai, but I personally don’t give a shit.” He shook his head. “Can’t believe I slept with her.”

“I’m… I’m sorry…” I said.

“Not your fault, Nate,” John said. He looked pointedly at Eliza as if to say who he thought was to blame. “And I can’t entirely blame her. I mean, she had her loyalties, and she knew what was going on. Unlike some people.”

“You fuckin’ what, mate?” Eliza whispered, her voice strained.

“Oh, was I being too subtle? YOU FUCKED EVERYTHING!” John yelled. He took a step forwards. “You and your dumbass of a sister…”

“You,” Eliza said, her face white, her claws popping out and her voice deadly quiet, “leave Char the fuck…”

“Oi!” the SAS operator said, quickly stepping between them and physically pushing them apart. “Stow it.” He glared at them in turns. “You said you were professionals. Act like it.”

John and Eliza glared at each other for a few more seconds. “I’m going to check the route back to the LZ,” John said. “Make sure it’s clear.” He then stalked off, Eliza glaring at him all the way.

Eliza began pacing and muttering under her breath. From what I could tell, it was mostly swearing directed at John. I just sat there awkwardly, listening to gunfire. From what I could tell, it was dropping off. Whether that meant someone was winning or if perimeters had just been secured and defined, I couldn’t tell.

Eventually, several operators, most with M-4 pattern weapons and one with what looked to be an internally silenced G3, came into view. I made a note of that last weapon because I instantly wanted it. Two stood outside the room, aiming down the hallway. Three more began quickly and efficiently unpacking a stretcher. A fifth began checking the medical devices I was hooked up to and a sixth was checking me.

“Either these guys aren’t very devious,” the one checking the medical devices, “or they’re incredibly scary. This stuff is clean.”

“You certain?” Eliza asked. “I don’t want to unhook ‘im and find out that that triggers a bomb or some sort of toxin.”

“He’s got no IVs in him, no EKGs, no wires of any sort,” the operator said. “There shouldn’t be any way to trigger some sort of trap. Unless there’s something you want to tell us?” I thought for a moment, then shook my head.

“Right,” the operator who had been checking me over said. He took out some clippers. “Let’s get him outta here.” Quickly and efficiently, he used the clippers to cut the chains of the handcuffs. I was then removed from the Defender oxygen machine and hooked up to a portable one the SAS medics had set up.

The process of getting me onto the stretcher and off the bed was quick, yet painful. “We’re going to buckle you in, ok?” one of the operators said. “We don’t want you falling off the stretcher.” I nodded. “You’re sure?” the operator asked. I could imagine them doing a similar operation where someone they had rescued freaked out when the restraints came out. To reassure them, I gave an exaggerated thumbs-up. The operators all sighed in relief as they strapped me in.

When I was secure, the operators radioed their status, then began hurrying out. We passed a lot of bodies. When we passed a pile of corpses outside a room with what looked to be a burning server farm, I noticed with a start that one of the bodies was Hiro. The way the bodies were arranged, it was like someone had appeared in the midst of them and sprayed them with automatic weapons fire. It had to be Mayu who did that.

Eventually, we got to the stairs. It was still a great place for someone to ambush us, and it was a lot slower than it should have been because I was on a stretcher. Eventually, we came out to the door. Outside, I could hear jets circling around. The radio crackled. “Orbit is touching down,” a staticy voice said. “Repeat, Orbit is touching down for dustoff. Move fast, we’re still receiving reports of hostiles active in the vicinity.”

The SAS operators and Eliza all exchanged some unspoken signal. Then we burst through the door. Ahead of us, a stealth VTOL designed for troop transport was waiting for us, complete with side bay doors and miniguns. Inside were medics getting ready for my arrival and people manning the miniguns. Its wheels were down, but since the jets were still on they were hovering a few inches off the ground.

One of the medics yelled something at us, but it was impossible to hear him over the whine of the jet engine. Then something hit the sides of the VTOL, making sparks. I thought I heard the sound of an SMG coming from the window above. I turned around just in time to see what the minigun was doing to where the gunner thought the shooter was. Multi-century-old brick was turned to powder and dust.

As soon as we were all buckled in, the VTOL screamed off into the air. Someone had put noise-canceling earphones on my head, but the sound was still ear-splitting. If I hadn’t been strapped in, I would have been thrown around wildly.

“So,” Eliza said, her voice crackling over the radio in the helmet, “I don’t think we’ve told you, Nate, but we’re going to NIU.”

I considered responding, but they hadn’t given me a mic. Trying to yell above the noise was going to be like trying to stop a tsunami using only my pinky, and that was pretending my lungs were working.

Eliza, correctly realizing the situation, continued. “I know you can’t talk, so I’m going to tell you as much as I possibly can. We have no bases in country that the Japanese wouldn’t poke their noses into. We also need to keep this quiet. Not sure if you know the situation, but the world’s gone to shite. The Dragon’s Teeth are fucking everyone up, and the last thing ‘Er Majesty wants is to piss off a potential ally against them. We’ll need to disappear after this, as well as get you healed up. NIU’s a brilliant place for both those things.”

I nodded. I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I’d get there, but at least I’d be safe. I closed my eyes. For now, my fight was over. Now it was time to take a well-earned nap.


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Ok, some bad news. I am unable to keep up with weekly writing. Between my day job, a family emergency, other responsibilities, and editing volume 1, I have no time to keep up with NIU weekly updates. I could quit my job or stop writing the book, but that leaves me with no money (and in one case, irate parents.) The other two options are either to delay future story posts until I have a buffer again (minimum is five) or let a dip in quality and words per chapter occur. I don’t think either option is a good one, but the first one is, in my opinion, significantly better. Please understand.

Track 25: Lying on the Floor

After a few tranquilizers and pain killers, I was lying on my side on a bunch of blood-stained plastic garbage bags. I still hurt, but whatever I had been shot up with was so good that I didn’t care. To celebrate this rather nice feeling, I began singing a song about sweaters and the unraveling thereof that played a lot on a local Alt Rock station. It was a terrible rendition, sung wheezily with long pauses in odd places when the pain got too much for the painkillers to block out. At the time, though, I thought it was great. Not even someone asking, “Can’t we just knock him out?” could convince me otherwise.

I eventually came to my senses somewhat. Key word being “somewhat.” I muzzily said, “Heyyy… this isn’t the farmhouse…”

“We told you,” Hirosama said, “we’re in an abandoned industrial office park.”

“You did?” I asked, then began coughing. I looked around. I suddenly realized I was lying on my side in what appeared to be a reception area. My shirt and vest were off and I was wearing an oxygen mask.

“Is he lucid?” Jen asked, coming in through the door. Her mask was pushed up over her face, but apart from that, she was still in costume. “Or is he still high?”

“The two aren’t mutually exclusive…” I wheezed. I giggled. That hurt like hell, but I was so high, I didn’t give a shit. “Hey… does everything like crappy phone speakers… or is it just me?”

“Ugh,” Jen said, “you’re having a bad reaction to the meds, aren’t you?”

“Naw…” I said. “This isn’t bad. Like, I literally don’t give a shit.” I giggled, then coughed in pain. “It’s like magic.” I then began humming another song.

“Can we give him something stronger?” Kaori asked wearily. “He’s going to blow his lung. Again. And he’ll have driven me insane in the meantime.”

Jen groaned and sank into a waiting room chair. I noticed that the gloves were wet. “Ugh,” she groaned, burying her face in her hands, “what the hell did I do to deserve this?” She raised her head. Her face was covered with a sticky red liquid. “Ok,” she said, “we can’t leave him here. We’re going to have to move him.”

I suddenly realized that the liquid staining Jen’s faces was blood. Probably mine. That sobered me up extremely quickly.

“We can’t move him.” That sounded like John. His voice came from behind, so I turned around. A desk was in the way. I guess I wasn’t as sober as I thought, because for a horrible second, I thought he had been turned into a desk. Trust me, that’s possible. Just as I figured out that John was just behind the desk, he said, “Look, none of us were doctors. It was a fucking mistake to move him out of that van without a stretcher.”

“Then what are we going to do with him?” Jen asked.

“Leave me,” I said.

“Unacceptable,” Jen said.

“Yeah,” John said. “Remember rule number one of combat tactics? No heroics.”

“This isn’t heroics,” I said. “If they find you, and I’m traveling with you, it’d be another shootout and I’d probably die.”

“They won’t find us again,” Lydia said. Everyone turned to look at her and Andrew. They quailed. “Well,” Lydia admitted, “it’d be highly improbable.”

“But if I stay here,” I said, “and someone finds me… well, I’m not in any shape to fight, and I’m pretty useful alive.”

“You know,” John said, “we could split up. Some of us remain behind to guard you…”

“And basically be sitting ducks if the police or Defenders or Dragon’s Teeth show up.” I paused. “Wait, did I tell you that the Dragon’s Teeth are here? Because I had a really weird conversation with Jeong and Richard.” At Richard’s name, Jen froze like I had insulted her.

“Who?” Lydia asked. I heard Kaori make a noise suggesting she didn’t know.

“Uh…” John said, “If you’re talking about who I think you’re talking about…”

“Yeah, they’re dead,” I said. “That’s how they were able to contact me. Like, the Deets have this psionic network and…”

“HE’S DEAD!” Jen yelled. “SHUT UP!” Everyone stared at her. “Sorry,” Jen said. “But dead is dead, and if they can come back, they should either come back immediately, or leave me the hell alone!”

“You… you ok?” I asked.

Jen sighed. “No,” she said. “I’m not ok, I never was ok, and I never will be. I hate my life, my father killed my brother, my best friend was killed by her own family, the first person I ever tried to save cut her own throat right in front of me… And now the dead are talking to me. Did Richard say anything to you?”

“Wait,” I said, “you know him?”

“We bonded over having psychotic family members,” Jen said. “It was before we came to NIU. His sister was my best friend, she was dating my brother, and she’s… she was one of the best people I have ever met. Needless to say, her parents and my father wanted her dead. Anyway, what did Richard have to say to you?” Her slight emphasis on you conveyed how rude she thought it was that Richard had contacted me and not her.

After I explained the entire conversation I had had with the two ghosts, John groaned. “So, basically, we’ve been living with Thana or whatever the Dragon’s Teeth call her or it right next to us? Fuck me, right?”

“But this could all be Nate’s drug dreams,” Andrew said. “How do…”

“I’ve been seeing them too,” Jen said. “They’re really full of themselves.”

“You guys need to get out of here,” I said. “They’ll find us.” I paused to get my breath again. “Only way we survived last time was to get mobile. Can you even get me to the car?”

Jen looked grim. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I took a few classes at NIU in first aid because… I know how my life works. I also know you need a real doctor.”

“Ok,” I said. “Take my weapons and get out of here.”

“But…” Jen protested.

“Look,” I said, “if they come while you’re gone, the second-best scenario is to get captured, not die in some heroic last stand. Not having any weapons would aid in that. I’ve given Charlotte as much as I could, she doesn’t think I’ve done enough, then she doesn’t have to pay whatever price the Defenders of Fuji are asking.”

“Fine,” Jen said, “but you better be here when we get back.”

“Will do…” I said. Even in my drug-addled state, I knew better than to move. The pain was deadened, but it was still noticeably there. When everyone left, I realized I had forgotten two important things. First, I had forgotten to request additional painkillers when the ones I was on wore off. Second, I had forgotten to ask for some sort of entertainment. Now, I was in a boring room with increasing pain, unable to move, with my only source of entertainment wondering what the hell the Dragon’s Teeth were doing.

So, that’s what I did, because I needed an ulcer to go with my collapsed lung. There was so many things that they could be doing. I knew they were in Russia, Germany, France and India, but had no idea how they were doing. Also, did they really think that the world would just sit back and watch? I mean, I get that Russia had been really straining its relationship with the rest of the world, but it still was a country that did business with everyone. India also did business with everyone, but had much better neighbors and was a UNIX member. Germany, due to an influx of Grenzefrontier, had NATO forces and was also a UNIX member. France also was a NATO and UNIX member. In fact, it was where the headquarters for UNIX was.

In fact, all of these countries were the exact opposite of North Korea in terms of industrial development, global relations, and military modernization and strength. These weren’t countries that existed at the whim of some superpower. Hell, one of those countries was the kind of country that propped up psychotic dictators. Plus, unless they were really dedicated to avoiding pictures, every single piece of their tech and a lot of their tactics would be recorded.

Then there was the fact that it had taken so long for them to take down North Korea. North Korea, a backwards country struggling to industrialize, where the people starved, mostly due to the corruption of their leaders, had held out against the Deets for at least a year. That did not speak well to their ability. Either that, or they were just testing things. That, however, seemed like a huge waste of resources. Plus, North Korea’s one friend was China. China had a multi-million man army that could have crashed across the border and kill every single person the Dragon’s Teeth had sent in.

Of course, there were still a bunch of Dragon’s Teeth running around the city. Plus, I was possibly the first to have killed a type of Deet soldier called a Berserker. I hoped they weren’t vindictive enough to risk a few soldiers to kick me in the chest and/or torture me.

Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. “Who’s there?” I asked.

“It’s me,” a female voice with a slight Chinese accent said.

“Bai!” I said happily. “Great to see you!”

“And me,” a voice said sullenly.

“And Li!” I said, my happiness now faked. “How… wonderful.”

“Are you armed?” Bai asked as she and her twin brother edged cautiously into the room. I noticed that their hands were on their guns, ready to draw them out of their holsters.

Suddenly, despite the pain meds, alarm bells were ringing in my ears. “No…” I said as they entered the room. “I thought Jen would have told you that.”

“Jennifer?” Li asked. “Jennifer Kagemoto? What is her involvement in all of this?”

As he said this, I heard a voice say something in Japanese. Four men in surgical masks, dress shirts, combat backpacks, khakis and Kevlar moved quickly, calmly and quietly into the room. Each of them carried assault rifles with holographic sights and laser/flashlight combos. I could feel the red dots on my chest and head like little bugs crawling all over.

Instantly after, Hiro Nakashima came walking in, his arm dangling by his side and clutching a Taser. “Kagemoto-san,” he said, “has apparently been a pain in my organization’s ass for the past year.” He squatted down near me. “And you, Jacobs-san, have only magnified that pain.” He extended his arm until the less-lethal device was almost touching my chest and asked, “Do I need to use this, or will you come quietly?”


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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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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.”


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.


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.


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.


“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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