Track 23: SHOT THROUGH THE LUNG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you alright?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Track 22: Zero to One Hundred

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

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

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

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

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

“…About…”

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

“…Now!”

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

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

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

“You ok?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Aw, gross!” one of the hackers said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it blocked?” Jen asked, annoyed.

“No.”

“Then blow the fucking charges.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit…” John said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Track 21: Life in the Fast Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have a problem,” Kaori said.

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

“It would only be a temporary…”

“The brakes are disabled!” Kaori yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the helicopter above us smashed into a building nearby.

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

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

Then the minivan hit us.

 

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Track 20: We Have Big Gun

We headed towards Jen, our guns still up, but our fingers resting on the guards instead of the triggers. “Don’t worry,” Jen said, “they’re all dead.” She closed her eyes. “They’re all dead. Now, excuse me, I need to rest.”

“First off,” I said, “I’ll believe that when I fucking see it. And second, they’re not done. I bet we’re going to see a follow-up strike pretty soon.”

That woke Jen up. “You’re right. Fuck. Ok, we need to get our stuff. Meanwhile, I’m going to get Andrew and Lydia to give us some cover. Then I’m going to get my game face on.”

We headed into the room that sort of doubled as a main entrance/mud room for farm hands to take off their boots. Immediately, I saw a biker with several holes in his center mass lying against the wall, a surprised look on his face. Near his hand lay a Maccabee, one of the assault rifles that had been made by Nari and me. Seeing as that was a hell of a lot better than what I currently had, I bent down to pick it up. In the background, we could hear a TV.

When I did, I noticed that it had several attachments that weren’t factory-standard. In fact, they were the first third-party add-ons for the Maccabee and the Ballpeen. The magazine, for instance, was a prototype octa-stacked magazine, identifiable by the cartoon octopus. The scope was a combination video/x-ray/sonar/thermal/ultraviolet scope. I knew for a fact that there were only twenty prototypes and fifty production models in existence. “Jen,” I said, my voice dangerous, “what the hell is all this shit on my gun?”

“Oh God, Nathan, are you going full tech bro on me?” Jen asked, then patronizingly added, “You realize that once you sold your weapons to the Boston PD, you don’t get a say in what happens to them any…”

She was cut off by the sound of gunfire. We turned around, raising our weapons. That’s when I realized that the idiot who had chosen this gun had elected to put on the twenty-four inch barrel instead of the normal sixteen inch barrel, its heavier brother of equal length, or the nine inch barrel that was, you know, actually designed for this situation. I found this out because the barrel had literally caught on the doorframe.

“Wait,” Jen said, just as I had gotten the barrel unhooked from the door frame, “that’s from the TV.”

“Let’s check it out,” I said, “just to make sure.” I honestly kind of wanted it to be a continuation of the firefight. If it was, that meant I wouldn’t have to watch how I had almost single-handedly sent two peaceful cities into a panic over terrorism. Still, we moved towards the sound of the gunfire.

As we did, I suddenly realized that it couldn’t have been me. First off, it was still going on. There had only been one engagement I had had that could have been going on this long, and no cameras could have recorded it. There were also too many explosions. Plus, there seemed to be a Japanese reporter covering it live, with a lot of people yelling and screaming in what sounded to be Russian. That definitely ruled out something I had done, as I had never had fired a shot in front of a TV crew, and certainly had never been to Russia.

When we got into the TV room, I stopped and stared. Of course, the three other bikers who had been guarding us were all dead. One had been blown up with a well-placed grenade. The other two had been taking down with expertly placed bursts from an assault rifle. Two Ballpeen SMGs and one Maccabee plus assorted magazines and ammo boxes lay on a table far out of reach from the three dead men.

However, the thing that stuck out the most to me was what the images on TV depicted. Despite the fact that it had taken a few rounds of shrapnel, I could still see what looked to be a naval base under heavy attack. The reporter, a wild eyed Asian woman in a skirt suit and heels, was crouched behind some sandbags and desperately describing the situation in Japanese. To the left were a variety of drab concrete buildings. To the right, a destroyer was moored to the dock. Up the road, there was a hastily constructed barricade of sandbags and barbed wire manned by what looked to be Russian soldiers. They were supported by two BMPs (basically, Russian tank-like things designed to carry troops and kill infantry) and the guns on the destroyer. We didn’t have a clear view of what they were fighting. I did know that whatever it was, it was bad enough that multiple shots from the destroyer’s cannon hadn’t destroyed it.

The camera panned to people farther down the docks, showing that several subs, destroyers, and even an aircraft carrier were moored at the dock. It then zoomed in on people close by, desperately trying to get destroyer free. There were also others trying to get on board the carrier, some sailors, some soldiers, even a few civilians. I guessed similar scenes were happening at every ship. It panned back down the docks, showing that more barricades were being prepared.

The camera was then violently jerked to look at a group of Russian soldiers. The leader of the group, who I noted with a shock was younger than I was, said something in Russian that I assumed translated to “What the fuck are you still doing here? Get on the Goddamned boat!” The reporter, switching to what seemed to be broken Russian tried to protest.

Suddenly, there was a flash of light and the camera went dead. After a few seconds, the view switched from static to a pair of stunned anchors. I looked around. Kaori, Lydia, Hirosama, Andrew, and Mayu had come down while we had been watching. I noticed that both Lydia and Andrew were dressed like a villain called Bushido. I briefly wondered if that explained his long disappearance a while back and his newfound ability to be in multiple places at once. I had to admit, I was impressed at how the future biker samurai costume had been adjusted to mask Lydia and Andrew’s physical differences. I also noticed that Mayu had a black eye, a cut and puffy lip and several bruises from the beating Jen had given her, yet still was smiling her standard smile.

Hirosama and Kaori were also in costume as well. I suppose that I should call them Tatsu and Dokustsu, now that they were in costume. Both costumes were dark red and samurai-inspired like Jen’s, but the Dokusutsu costume had a seemingly eyeless hood and intricate conical hat done up to look like flame. The Tatsu costume had a dragon mask that left the mouth exposed and no gloves. A gas mask hung from around her neck.

Before I could ask about the costumes, Jen said, “Alright, the Defenders aren’t going to be spending their time watching the news, so neither should we. Bushido, Kuniochi, how long will it take to set up the smokescreen?”

One of the two people in the Bushido costume (I honestly couldn’t tell which one was Andrew and which one was Lydia, that’s how good their costumes were at disguising them) took out a laptop with an antenna attached and said, “Ten minutes or never, if something goes freakishly wrong.” The villain’s voice was extremely distorted.

The other said, “In most cases, it shouldn’t take more than three minutes.”

“Good,” Jen said. “Tatsu, Dokusutsu, get the car disguised and ready. Keep an eye out. Our consultants think there may be a second round.”

“Hai, Kagemoto-sama,” Tatsu and Dokusutsu both said in unison, bowing. They quickly moved off.

Jen turned to me and John. “You two, take Mayu and see if you can find anything useful. I’ll be up in the room, putting my war face on.”

“Do you want us to get our clothes?” I asked.

Jen, already almost out of the room, cocked her head, thinking about it. “No,” she said. “we have a safe house in mind. It should be secure long enough for us to change into civvies, then head to the Embassy.” She then began to head off. “In the meantime, your names while in disguise will be Killer and Driver.”

“Ok,” I said, “John… Driver, whatever, you and Mayu, go get any firearms, explosives, body armor, backpacks, and face masks you can find in the room. I’ll consolidate anything useful from the bikers and breachers.”

As John and Mayu moved out, I asked the two costumed hackers who had just pushed off a corpse from one of the couches and sat down to type, “You guys have any spare gloves?”

“Yeah,” the one who wasn’t typing said. S/he opened a pouch on their belt and pulled a handful of rubber gloves. “Sometimes I wear these over my costume gloves because they’ve got some pretty unique fibers in them. Not usually a problem, but sometimes I like to play it extra safe.”

“Makes sense,” I said as I pulled the gloves on. “By the way, what kind of weaponry do you two have?”

“I got a Glock 33,” the one who’d given me the gloves said, patting a holster. “Lydia’s got a Glock 29. We’ve also got a few party favors.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Why would we need anything else?” the one sitting at the laptop asked. This time I was able to identify her as Lydia.

I sighed, leaning my Maccabee against the other couch. I walked over to the Ballpeen with the sniper barrel. As I changed it to the ultra-short barrel, I said, “Your Glocks are going to be able to kind of penetrate Level I and Level II body armor. The problem is these guys tend to wear Level III and IV body armor. Those are designed to take multiple AK rounds.” I finally got the more appropriate barrel in. “This guy, however, is designed to defeat standard Dragon’s Teeth Legionary armor at pistol range, which I’d guess to be Level VII.” I tossed the weapon to the person I assumed to be Andrew. “Safety’s on. It works a lot like an M4, but the magazine release is a pistol release and you cock it and check it like an AK.”

Andrew caught it. When he did, he accidentally pressed the trigger on the foregrip that turned on the laser and light. This one had been set to solid laser on trigger. “Yo, this is awesome!” Andrew said, laughing like a kid finding a cool feature on an old toy for the first time. He flipped down the grip and began playing with the light and laser settings. I noticed his finger was on the gun’s trigger as well as the laser/light’s trigger.

“Hey,” I said, putting my souvenir guns on the couch opposite the villains, “keep that shit pointed in a safe direction.” The safety was still on, I knew for a fact that there wasn’t a round in the chamber (I had checked before I switched barrels like a safe person,) and I had removed the magazine (Again, part of good barrel-changing discipline.) Still, trigger discipline says a lot about whether or not you should work with a person.

“Sorry,” he said. Even though his voice was extremely distorted, he still sounded sheepish. I began to replace the barrel on my Maccabee with a more appropriate 14-inch heavy-barrel. Meanwhile, Andrew sat next to Lydia, suitably cowed. “Hey,” Andrew asked when I had put in a standard sixty-round mag, “any other cool stuff you can show me?”

Smiling, I began to explain him the various advantages of the gun, such as its MP-5 style stock, how the magazines worked, and how to change barrels. I was just explaining the advantages of a tactical sling when John and Mayu came back in, their arms full of weapons. John had wrapped his bundle in plate carriers, Mayu had hers in two backpacks.

“Nice,” I said, “but we can’t take all of them and I don’t want prints.”

“Of course,” Jen said, walking into the room, now in her Hinomoto Oniko costume. “That’s why we’re going to burn the building down when we leave.”

“Fair enough,” John said, handing me a ski mask and my pistols.

As I put my mask on, I told John, “Thanks. By the way, I want you to take one the other Maccabee and put it into a SAW configuration. You’ll be the closest thing we’ve got to a machinegunner out there and I do not want to be trapped out there without some suppressive fire.”

“Gotcha,” John said. “I also brought some medkits.”

We then took the guns we needed. John and I just took the Maccabees, our personal guns, and the body armor we had worn when we’d rescued Jen. Andrew and Lydia took the Ballpeens and a Benelli M3. Jen took her Kriss Vector and the M3 Grease Gun. Mayu retained her pink VP-70 and took an HK 417 with an underbarrel M-26 and EOTech holographic reflex sight, a Walther PPK, the shitty pistol I had hoped to abandon, the PM-9 I had taken from Jen’s rescue, and a relatively undamaged plate carrier that had obviously come from one of the Defenders that was loaded with grenades of various types. I noticed that Mayu had somehow managed to conceal her selected pistols extremely well.

When we were done, Jen said, “Ok. Let’s get to the car.”

“Are we really going to be taking the Escalade?” I asked. “Isn’t that a little obvious?”

I was pretty sure Jen smiled under the mask as she gestured for us to follow her. We did. When we got to a barn, I saw the Escalade. It had changed color from black to white and I’m pretty sure the license plates were different as well. “What do you think?” Jen asked.

Mayu immediately began teleporting around the car like an anime character, gushing in Japanese. “First off,” I said, “It’s still a big luxury American SUV in a country that hates SUVs. Secondly… should Mayu be able to jump that much?”

“You know…” Jen said, “I’m in the 99th percentile of Jumpers in terms of teleportation. That kind of strain would kill me.” Mayu stopped her jumping and giggled nervously. She didn’t even look strained. “Then again, everything about her is somewhat impossible.”

 

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Track 14: Leave Your Lights On

As soon as our former captive was buried in the ground, Jen smiled and said, “Well, that was easier than I thought it would be.” She slipped her mask on. As it went on, the eyes began to glow blue and the mask began to filter her voice. “Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get into character.”

With that, she turned on her heel and walked to behind the Escalade. “Has…” Lydia asked, “has she ever needed to get into character before?”

Hirosama shrugged. “Not for this. I mean, she usually needs some time to prepare for talking to a court or her father.” His wife shot him a dirty look. “But she is our leader. We should not question her on this.”

I was listening to this, but only enough to hear if they noticed me moving after her. I doubted I was the only one who had noticed her voice crack, or how she was obviously lying when she said how easy it was. Or maybe they did. Jen’s pet supervillains seemed unquestioningly loyal, but they weren’t her friends. I thought it would be best to do a “perimeter check” and if I ran into Jennifer, maybe ask her how things were going.

When I got to where Jen had disappeared, I saw that she was leaning against the car, the horns on her mask touching the window. Her shoulders were also shaking. “Are you ok?” I asked.

She looked up. There was a long silence. I didn’t know what to think for those few seconds, apart from how genuinely terrifying she looked in that mask. I was starting to worry that I had offended her in some way when she suddenly hugged me.

“Um…” I said as our body armor clanked together. I was about to complain about how tight she was hugging or how I was currently dating someone else. Then I noticed how much she was trembling. There was also the strange staticky noise that I realized was what her mask’s voice changer did to sobbing. Hesitantly, I hugged her back.

“Everyone I love dies,” Jen said.

“It’s ok,” I said. “It’s ok…”

“And then I let them down!” Her sobbing doubled as she said this. “Every time!” Her hug tightened and then she said something that, between her voice changer and her sobbing, was incomprehensible.

I was unsure of what to do. On the one hand, at least for the moment, I need her badly. On the other, I wanted to avoid her. She was a liability, and not the kind I could (or wanted to) solve with violence.

Suddenly, there was a giggle. Jen let go of me like she had been burned and began adjusting her costume and looking innocent. I turned around. To my complete lack of surprise, Mayu was standing behind us, a hand covering her mouth. “I’m sorry to intrude,” she said.

“No you aren’t,” Jen said. A bit of her old self had returned.

“Are we needed out front?” I asked, trying to be conversational. Inside my head, I was thinking, Please don’t tell Eliza, please don’t tell Eliza, please don’t tell Eliza. Honestly, I think Eliza would have understood. I just didn’t want Mayu being the one to tell her.

Before Mayu could answer, Jen said, “I might as well head out. They’ll be here shortly.” She then walked off. I followed her. When she was back in front of the car, Hirosama opened his case he was carrying and presented what was inside to Jen. She nodded and took out two chrome and black Berretta 92G Elites. “Thank you,” she said as she holstered them. Hirosama then bowed and closed the case. After Jen had finished putting away the guns away, she said, “Well, our friends have another five minutes. I’m not really in the mood for games tonight.”

I relaxed. This was Jen getting back to normal. This was good, at least in this situation. Unless she started a fight, which would be bad. I pulled my mask down and arranged my PM-9 in a way that was easily accessible but not as threatening as it could be. I noticed that Jen’s associates were putting on surgical masks. We began to wait.

Around four minutes in, John noticed almost everyone else was wearing some sort of mask. Belatedly, he pulled his ski mask down. A few minutes later, Mayu began to realize she was the only one not wearing a mask and began to fidget nervously.

“Well,” Jen said, around ten minutes after they should have arrived, “this seems to be a bust.” At this point, it was almost dawn. The night was so dark that the eyes of Jen’s mask were really the only source of light. Apart from the wildlife and the occasional car, silence reigned. “I’ll give them another ten minutes, then we pack up and move to the back-up safe house.”

A few seconds later, I heard the sound of a group of multiple loud engines moving perpendicular to the freeway. “Wait,” I said, “how many people did you say were going to be meeting us?”

“I didn’t,” Jen said, “but there shouldn’t be that many.” I raised my PM-9 and John raised his Type 89. “Wait!” Jen said hurriedly, gesturing for us to lower our guns, “I didn’t say it wasn’t them!” We lowered our guns and took our fingers off our triggers, but didn’t take our hands of the grips.

As we did, a group of motorcycles turned down a corridor of corn farther up in front of us. Eventually, a formation of ten to fifteen motorcycles, two sports cars (I couldn’t tell their make and model due to the lights blinding me,) and one panel van were arrayed in front of us. The formation seemed to be set up so that the bikes acted as a screen for the sports cars and van. The bright halogen lights were good at preventing me from getting a good count on the men or a read on their equipment, but they seemed to be bikers. This assumption was based on the chains, pipes and giant pompadours.

The door of one of the sports cars opened, and a man exited the vehicle and began walking towards us. As he began walking towards us, four of the bikers got off their bikes and formed a sort of shield around him. “Hey, Jen,” I asked, preparing to raise my PM-9, “how close should we let them get?”

“Oh, stop being so jumpy, Nate,” Jen said somewhat dismissively. “They need more from me than just guns.” I nodded, noting that she had the straps of her holsters undone.

“Oi, Kagemoto-san!” the man who had gotten out of the sports car said as he got within ten meters, “you brought more people than agreed. What gives?” I noticed that part of the reason the lights of the bikes and cars were still on is that I could only make out the vague outlines of the people coming towards us.

“We ran into problems,” Jen said simply indicating John and me with a wave. “My two friends came to help, then they talked me into the rescue business.” She laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m not going into the superhero business… at least not full time.” Her voice became serious again. “Anyway, I need a place to stay. In exchange, consider the guns a gift.”

The gang leader stared at John and me long and hard. “So,” he asked, “who are your friends?”

“Tourists,” John said. “Our AirBnB rating is five stars.”

“I highly doubt that,” the man said, “considering that either of you on your own outguns all of us.” He was right. I saw some chains, a few brass knuckles, and a lot of lead pipes and baseball bats. Not a single person, however, seemed to have any kind of firearm.

“Well,” I said, trying not to choke on my words, “if you want to change that, these guns we’re…” I actually did choke there. “…just giving away are very good.” I made them, I should know. “Just out of curiosity, why are there so many of you here? Do you really need this many people to make a buy?”

“Well,” the man said, “there was an incident in the city. Three cops are dead. Would you happen to know anything about that?”

“We want the same thing as you do,” Jen said. “We want a place to lie low and not have to worry about police officers. And honestly, I think we want to leave this country more than you want us gone. In exchange, I’ll send you a few gifts from time to time.”

There was a long pause “If I help you,” the gang leader said, “you will never set foot in this city again, you will never set foot in this prefecture again, you will never set foot in this country again and you will never contact me directly again.”

“Unless you change your mind,” Jen said, “I will never contact you directly ever again.”

The leader sighed and said something in Japanese that I hoped translated to “Good enough.” He then motioned for his people to check the boxes. They quickly broke into the crates and began picking up random and breaking down the guns or inspecting the bullets. As they did, they chatted to each other, expressing interest and surprise.

Eventually, one turned to me and said, “These kinds of guns, I’ve never seen them before. Are they good?”

“On paper?” I said, “very good. In practical terms? They’re still pretty experimental. I can’t give you any real details, I didn’t design them. You should note that they use proprietary ammunition and the pistols try to get away from you.” Yes, that’s it, Nate, keep badmouthing your own products. That way they won’t suspect who you are. “Also, I’m pretty sure the guy who made it is an idiot whose company gets by on child labor.”

“So?” the gangster said. Then he went back to talking to his friends. I went on looking for signs that the deal was going to go bad. There were none and the men packed the guns into the van. When they were done, the leader said, “Get back in your car. I’ll show you where the safe house is.” He turned around and shouted something in Japanese to his men. The other sports car, two thirds of the bikes, and the van scattered. A few motorcycles drove past us, but I noticed that they gave us a wide berth.

When we were finally in the car, we saw the sports car the gang leader had arrived in do a donut and drive back the way it came, albeit at a slower pace. The remaining bikes followed it and we followed those bikes. We drove through the maze of maize (ok, it might have been something else) until we got to a farm house. There, we could finally make out that the boss had been driving a Lamborghini.

“Ok,” the boss said as we got out of the Escalade, “this farm was recently abandoned. We bought it because we were going to see if we could grow weed here. There are other safe houses, but the police have been busy in the past few hours and started to set up road blocks and raiding places left and right. Something about a terrorist attack.” He turned to look directly at Jen. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you, Kagemoto-san?”

Jen simply looked at the farmhouse. “This is a very good hiding place.” She turned back to the gang leader and bowed. “Thank you for this favor. Someday I will return it.” She seemed genuinely grateful, but to me it sounded like a threat.

The gang leader must have thought it sounded ominous as well, because when he returned the bow he said, “Just don’t cause any additional trouble. That is all I ask of you.”

Jen, unable to keep her mouth shut, said, “Me, cause trouble? What makes you think that?”

 

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