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 6: Back in the NIU Groove

As I fell, I lost my grip on my Berretta, causing it to clatter to the ground. I quickly grabbed it and turned around, looking to see what I had tripped over.

Lying next to me, wearing a blue sweater, was an olive-skinned man with close-cropped hair. He groaned, and tried to get to his feet. “Mubashir?” I asked. “Is that you?” Mubashir Mubarak was one of the other three NIU infiltrators who accompanied me into this rat’s nest. His mission was a little different than mine: not only was he working for UNIX, but I also believed he was working with the CIA or someone to infiltrate Al-Qaeda.

As I watched him struggle to get up, I noticed that something was leaking from his eyes and nose. It took me a bit to realize that he was bleeding. “Jacobs?” he asked when he was finally able to look up, his voice confused. “What are you doing in my room?”

As he stared into my eyes, I saw that his pupils were different sizes. “This isn’t your room,” I said, the horror in my gut changing flavor. Moob’s boss, Salim, had it out for me. If we were caught together, it would be a death sentence for Mubashir. On the other hand, Mubashir was showing obvious signs of a concussion. If I let him walk off, there was a chance he would just fall down and never get back up again.

While I was considering this, Mubashir began looking around. “You’re right…” he said, “but where are we?”

“We’re…” I began, then looked around. We were still in NIU, but in a part I had never seen before. Over a white picket fence, I could see what I assumed to be Sun Tzu. Between Sun Tzu and the picket fence was a chain link fence.

I began looking around more carefully. Behind us was a white colonial-style house, like the kind back home. The house and backyard area we were in was well-maintained. To the left was a green house of a different style and what looked to be a convenience store. To the right was a blue house and some kind of office building.

“…Well, I’m not sure,” I said as I got up. “Maybe it’s the Kill Street. That’s pretty far from where I was when…” I shuddered. Not only had I been… assaulted by some Lovecraftian shit, I had somehow teleported here. Also, judging by the sun, it was a little after noon, yet I had no blank spots that explained the time skip.

“The what?”

“I kind of heard older students talk about it,” I said. “It’s basically urban/suburban combat training.” I turned my attention back to Mubashir. “You ok, man?”

I had good reason to ask. His efforts to get to his feet only made him look drunk, plus he was shivering like the temperature was sub-arctic. Also, while I couldn’t be sure because the rate was so low, I had the sneaking suspicion that the bleeding from his eyes and nose was still happening.

“I need to be,” he said, in a tone as frightened as it was dazed. “I… I have to get back. I’ve been blacking out like this too much…”

“Wait,” I asked suddenly, “you’ve been blacking out and ending up in strange places on a regular basis?”

“I…” Mubashir was about to say something, then his eyes drifted to my hand. I suddenly realized that it was still clutching my Berretta. “…I need to go,” Mubashir said. He then ran off.

“Talk to a doctor!” I yelled after him as he disappeared around the house. After a few seconds, I added under my breath, “fucking dumbass.”

The next step was to find out the time. That was easy, if disconcerting. I pulled out my phone. For a second, it said the time was 7:35 AM, which was about the time the weird shit had started going down. Then, after it finished reconnecting to the internet, it updated to 2:24 PM. I had lost seven hours.

The next step was to get out. That was just as easy. Since I didn’t want to attract any more negative attention to Mubashir than his bleeding eyes, frequent blackouts and disorientation normally would, I decided to scale the chain link fence. It was only after I had got down on the other side that I realized how much more healthy all the running around made me. That was the one good thing about being in the AMS: I may have already been shot, I may be mentally disintegrating, and I may have potentially been attacked by an Elder God, but at least I wouldn’t die from being overweight.

The rest of the day was a mess of wondering whether or not what had happened that morning was real. Either way, I probably should tell someone. It was just… I wasn’t sure if anyone I knew could do anything about it.

I mostly spent the time before the meeting doing school shopping. One of the first things, I have to admit, was buy some whiskey, one that was, apparently, tinged with honey. It was to be my reward for meeting up with Krieger. Once I had met with him, I was going to go straight back to my room and start imbibing.

I got to the Drunken Mercenary exactly ten minutes ahead of schedule. I couldn’t help but smile. The Drunken Mercenary was built into a dorm for fresh meat (or AMS/Shadowhaven students who hadn’t passed Hell Semester.) Once Hell Semester was over, the survivors would move into this dorm. Most of it was the same semi-modern style as all the other buildings on the island, but The Drunken Mercenary did its best to replicate an old tavern. An old-time sign hung over a Medieval-looking door that served as the bar’s entrance. Behind the blacked-out window was the trappings of an old European pub, plus a few pool and poker tables and a few TVs that invariably were tuned to soccer, or, as the people watching called it, football.

“Nathan!” A booming Russian voice called out. I turned to seem my boss, Dmitri Arkadyvich Popov, a tall, muscular Russian with a shaved head. “Why so early?”

“Just thought that if I could get here early, I could leave earlier,” I said.

“You poor fool,” Dmitri said as he got his keys out. “Now you will be waiting as well.” He then pushed open the door and I followed him into the bar.

Before he could turn on the lights, someone sitting by the door between the Drunken Mercenary and the dorm part of the building beat him to it. “You’re late, Dmitri,” a hard, female voice with a Russian accent said.

I turned to see a middle-aged woman with dark hair sitting at one of the tables. I recognized her instantly: Professor Zemylachka, the head of the Shadowhaven school. Dimitri laughed. “Rosie,” he said, “one of these days, your ninja horseshit will get you shot.”

“You’ll forgive me,” Professor Zemylachka said wryly, “if I’m not too frightened by that. Would you get me a drink?”

“Nathan,” Dmitri said, “you want to get some practice bartending?”

“Sure,” I said. “By the way, what are my hours going to look like?”

“I was thinking you could get your old times, plus Friday,” Dmitri said as I moved behind the bar.

“Sounds good,” I said, “all my classes are during late mornings or early afternoons.” I picked up a cup. “Hey, Professor, what do you want?”

“May I have the good stuff?” Professor Zemylachka asked.

“Is she a personal friend?” Dmitri asked.

“No sir,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Sorry, Ma’am. Rules are rules.” The rule in question was that when I was behind the bar, I had to run it like a kleptocrat, only unlocking the cabinet that contained the non-shitty alcohol for personal friends. Everyone else got a brand of beer from America that was famous for its lack of quality, cheap Russian vodka, and some unidentifiable liquid stuffed in a jam jar and disturbingly labeled “For Assholes. Free.”

Professor Zemylachka laughed. “What about Mr. Popov?” she asked.

I considered, then said, “He just pays the bills.”

The head of Shadowhaven laughed. Dmitri, weirdly enough, told me, “Good job. Remember, you are master of the bar.”

“What about me, boyke?” a growly voice asked.

I looked up. Leaning against the window, I saw Professor Krieger leaning on the wall next to the door leading out to the street. As usual, his light brown eyes were sparkling with insanity. Someone who didn’t know better would think that someone that big couldn’t sneak in like that.

I, however, had seen bigger be stealthier. “Sorry,” I said, “best I can give you is a twenty-five percent discount on the cat piss.” I indicated the tap to indicate what I meant.

“I’m hurt, Boyke.”

“You should be honored,” Dmitri said. “I only let people give discounts when they want to impress someone or negotiate with them, especially one that good.”

“Oh,” Krieger said. “In that case, I’m honored. A pitcher of cat pee for me and my friends.”

I got busy preparing the awful substance for them. Just as I was about done, Kyle Rockford walked in. One of the four survivors (not counting Nari) of the North Korean recon mission, he was recruited by Krieger and advised by Professor Zemylachka. He also had led a sting mission against Grenzefrontier sympathizers at NIU at the behest of The President.

That mission had come to a bloody end at the end of last semester. His team, mostly teammates from his high school who had apparently stood by him when he came out as trans, had all ended up dead. Needless to say, by the time of the North Korean expedition, he was kind of soured on the whole “being a spy” thing. In fact, I was surprised to see him back here.

“Oh no,” he said. “How long have they been talking to you?”

“Kyle,” I asked, somewhat confusedly as he walked over to me, “what are you talking about?”

“Listen,” he said, “Nate, you’re a decent person. Leave now while you can still live with yourself.”

“Are you threatening another student?” Professor Zemylachka asked.

“We both know full well what I’m saying,” Kyle said, turning to her angrily. He turned back to me. “Seriously, man,” he said, “I’m not threatening, I’m begging. They want to do the impossible.”

“And that is…?” I asked.

“We feel the school is not living up to its potential as a learning environment,” Kreiger said. “Some of our fellow faculty in the more… pacifistic programs have tried to make changes as well. Their approaches have met with failure as their methods required them to work with people who had vested interest in keeping things the same. As such, they failed.”

Things were now disturbingly clear. The faculty of AMS and Shadowhaven were planning an armed revolt. “I see…” I said.

“Nate,” Kyle said, “I came back to get as many people out as possible.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Their plan… remember those people at Hell Semester final? Remember how North Korea looked when we got there? That’s what’s going to happen.”

I paused. Then I asked Krieger, “Are your plans for change… playing into your strengths?”

“It depends,” he said. “We have some reasonable demands. Less brutal Hell Semester, students having more control over their own work, having punishments being less arbitrary… things of that nature.”

“And when would this be?” I asked.

“Now, boyke,” Krieger said, “you should know that we can’t really tell you anything more until you’re in.”

“And if I don’t join?” I asked.

“Depends on who else you tell,” Kreiger said. “We can keep disagreements civil if you can.”

I considered. Finally, I said, “I’ll have to think about this.”

Kyle’s face fell. Krieger smiled. “Take your time, boyke,” he said. “After all, we still have a lot of time.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You… know him?” Agent Brosnan asked.

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

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

“Are those legal?” Agent Brosnan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Track 23: Did it Matter?

The rest of the trip home was pretty uneventful, except for the annoying transfer from our rescuer’s boats to the NIU helicopter. Let me tell you, it is annoying as hell trying to get one nine-year-old, one person on a stretcher and three commandos from off the deck of a modified patrol boat and onto a helicopter in the middle of the ocean. After that grueling ordeal, I watched the three heavily armed patrol boats speed off into the distance.

As I watched them go, I briefly wondered who they were. My guess, though, is that the information was need-to-know, and I didn’t need to know it. Plus, I didn’t really want to spend any time more thinking about this mission than I had to.

I’m not sure when I realized it, but by the time we had touched down at the NIU airport, I realized that several people I knew had died. I hadn’t known Jeong or Joseph before the mission, and I had some problems with Joseph, but I hadn’t wanted any of them to die… at least, by the second day.

Even though, I, personally, thought that we needed to find out what the Dragon’s Teeth were up to, I still wondered if the information we had gotten was worth the price. Two of our people had died. Then we had shot our way through what felt like an entire South Korean police force. That last bit has probably joined the long list of things keeping me up at night.

Eventually, we got back to NIU. There’s a reason NIU’s called Nowhere Island University. The L-shaped island is literally in the middle of nowhere, with a second, smaller, island in the “bay” formed by the prongs and a third one on the other side. Once upon a time, during WWII, someone had believed that it was worth setting up an air base there. Someone else had decided that it was worth invading, and as a result, hundreds of people had lost their lives there.

From what I could gather, the island’s only value now was how far out of the way it was. That didn’t mean people didn’t still die there. As the chopper passed over the main island’s joint, I noticed the Hell Semester barracks. The barracks, and Hell Semester, had an actual name, but I had never bothered to learn it. Barely a second later, I caught a glimpse of the clearing where a group of people, including me, had passed the Hell Semester “final.” Those three months had been some of the worst of my life at that point. Not only had I suffered the common Freshman year experience of not knowing anybody, but I had also made several enemies who literally tried to kill me, forced through a brutal training regimen, and put in a series of kill-or-die situations.

Still, considering where I had just been and the way my second semester had gone, it was good to be back. I remembered the bourbon I had one night at second semester and how I could actually sleep after a shot or two. That, plus a couple advils, sounded like an amazing idea.

When we landed, all of the recon team was hauled onto stretchers. Nari followed along as we were brought into a Bearcat ambulance. She seemed a little worried about getting into the large, black vehicle. My guess is that she had seen people go into black armored cars before, and she hadn’t seen them come back.

I, on the other hand, had taken a ride in one of Campus Security’s Bearbulances. I had been stabbed in the gut during Hell Semester and been set right next to someone who wasn’t as lucky as I had been. We had both survived, but my fellow classmate hadn’t gone back to Hell Semester. I wondered if she could come back.

Once we were finally in, doctors began working on Kyle and John. John had been in and out of consciousness throughout the entire trip. Sunny had been working on him with our rescuer’s medics, and between sleep deprivation and her cracked or broken ribs, she was pretty out of it herself.

“So,” one of the doctors in the Bearbulance said, detaching himself from Kyle, “Mr. Rockford’s going to survive, and, by some miracle, there’s a good chance Mr. Marshall will survive as well. Now we’ve just got to check you guys. If you would remove your front plates, we can conduct the battlefield ultrasound.”

“Do I need to take my shirt off?” I asked as Sunny and I removed the plates in our armor.

“Nope,” the guy said, as he fiddled with the stylus-like device connected to his tablet. “There’s been another upgrade.”

“Wait,” Nari said, suddenly perking up, “you can do ultrasound without having to apply gel? And even do it through cloth? How?”

The medic shrugged. “Don’t know. A group of our alums made it. I just thank God for it every time I use it.” He then began scanning me. After a while, he said, “Let me guess: you’re having trouble breathing and severe chest pains?” I nodded. The medic sighed. “Your ribs are severely cracked. Don’t walk or exert yourself for a month or three.”

He then did a similar scan of Sunny. “Can I see your plates?” he asked. We showed the bullet-riddled things to him. “Figured,” he said. “I did a tour in Iraq, made the mistake of retiring to Chicago, and started here literally the week before the Grenzefrontier attack. Am I always going to have to deal with gunshots?”

“Be careful what you wish for, man,” I said, leaning back. “Come Hell Semester, you’re gonna get it.” I closed my eyes, then a thought struck me. “Hey, you think I could keep this?” I asked, holding up my plate. “You know, like a souvenir?” I giggled manically. “Just a little something to say, ‘Hey, Nate, remember how you almost died in Korea investigating the Dragon’s Teeth?’”

“I’m sure,” the medic said, cutting me off before I could ramble on any further. “You’re going to have to stay awake for a bit longer, though. The President wants to debrief you.”

“John gets operated on first, right?”

One of the medics working on John laughed. “He’s not going to be at your interview. He’s going straight to the operating theater, then to ICU. Meanwhile, you four are going to get debriefed.”

This was… interesting news. First off, Nari was going to be with us, presumably so The President could figure out what to do with her. Second, he was in quite the hurry to find out what was going on in North Korea. I remembered that when he sent John and me on this mission, he had mentioned he had theories. Then that weird, cult-like group of Dragon’s Teeth had said that their creators had someone behind them. Considering NIU’s level of tech and the fact that they had been researching interdimensional travel, I was willing to bet that benefactor was our beloved President.

Eventually, we were brought to the school’s hospital. We were in a wing set up with several beds and two bathrooms. I had been in a similar room before, due to the whole stabbed in the gut thing. For all I knew, it might have been the same room.

“If you can stand,” one of the medics attending us said, “you might want to take a shower in the bathrooms and change into some hospital gowns. We got some in the bathrooms.”

“Let me guess,” I said, “you want us to smell nice before The President gets here.”

“There’s that,” he said as I got up, “and there’s the fact that showers make you feel better.”

After he left, Sunny and I proved him right. As the warm water poured over my burns and bruises, I sighed with pleasure. All the dust, dirt and sweat that had settled on me slowly flowed off. Yeah, it hurt like hell, but that really wasn’t much of a difference from normal and I had gotten to take my underwear off.

I got the pants and gown, savoring the sensation of clean clothes against my skin. I staggered out and flopped down on the farthest bed. Kyle, on the way to the shower, said, “You know, you could have taken the closest bed.”

I would have shrugged, but I was lying down and my chest was killing me. “I’ll leave that bed to one of you guys,” I said. “Meanwhile, you can go shower. I’m going to see if I can get the news.”

I flipped the TV on and began watching. Apparently, while we had been away, ISIS and the Grenzefrontier had both launched offensives. While the Grenzefrontier incursion in the US had been mopped up rather well, the offshoots in South America were starting to become a problem, and the German front had become a bloodbath. Meanwhile, ISIS had expanded from Syria and Iraq to Jordan. The Iraq situation was particularly horrendous as ISIS had somehow gotten ahold of tanks. Now, the only thing stopping ISIS from taking Baghdad was a coalition of Parahumans, local militia, and foreign auxiliaries. The government my country had spent eight expensive years installing was, apparently, useless.

In the midst of all this, people were starting to notice The Dragon’s Teeth. While two people were talking about all the horrible things ISIS and the Grenzefrontier were doing to the people in their territory, we were interrupted by a special report.

The feed instantly cut to a picture of the border between North and South Korea, the camera focused on the backs of South Korean soldiers aiming at the North side. It sort of reminded me of the opening scene from A New Hope when the Rebels are about to receive visitors. From the North Korean side, the sound of gunfire and explosions could be heard.

I turned around to see Nari looking over my shoulder intently. “It’s the Dragon’s Teeth, isn’t it?” she asked.

“We’ll see,” I said. “Something tells me we’re going to get confirmation.”

A few seconds later, I was proven right. From the North Korean side, a North Korean soldier ran out from the guardhouse waving a white sheet wrapped around a broom and shouting desperately.

“He’s saying he’s defecting,” Nari said. “He’s begging them to… oh no.” The feed, which had been HD, suddenly took a dip in quality, with weird, flickering white splotches scattered around the courtyard. But that wasn’t the reason why Nari had said “oh no.”

Three Dragon’s Teeth Berserkers had burst through the door, their huge guns slung over their shoulders and their armor pockmarked and scarred from the recent battle. The defecting North Korean turned around and put on a burst of speed, but two of the Berserkers easily tackled him. The defector briefly disappeared under a mass of armor, barely a centimeter from the border. Then, without a word, the Berserkers calmly stood up and dragged their captive back into the guard house. The captive, despite obviously having his nose broken, and his ribs broken as well, kicked and screamed all the way back.

As a Millennial, I understood for the first time what is was like for previous generations to watch as JFK’s head exploded or a plane to fly into the World Trade Center. I, and millions of others, were all watching with the same horror.

While we were watching slack-jawed, the third Berserker, towering over the Koreans from his over seven foot height, began speaking in Korean. His tone and body language was very respectful, most likely because his armor’s glowing eyes and the display of his raw power were intimidating enough. After he was done, he bowed and walked back into the guardhouse. The footage kept focus on the scene, as if the person controlling the stream was stunned.

“He says not to worry. The North Korean people are simply undergoing an internal struggle, and he requests that the people of the world respect North Korea’s sovereignty.”

Nari and I jumped a bit to see Sunny and Kyle in hospital gowns, both with grave faces staring intently at the screen. I had been so engrossed in the footage, I hadn’t heard them come out. “How much did you guys see?” I asked.

“Enough,” Kyle said darkly. “I hope you’re wrong about them getting worse, Killer.”

The news cut back to the two anchors. The male anchor, seemingly not knowing what to say, finally said, “That was live footage from the border between North and South Korea. For the past few months, we have been hearing rumors about a group called The Dragon’s Teeth operating within North Korea.”

“Past few months?” I muttered incredulously. “More like over a year. Do your job and tell us about this shit before a country falls next time.”

“Meanwhile,” the female anchor said with a robotic chipperness, “what would aliens think about humanity’s capacity for destruction? The question may be more relevant than you think as scientists from SETI come on to talk to us about potential alien sightings. More after these messages!”

As a happy add for soft drinks began to play, Nari said, “Now, I admit I am not qualified to talk about media, but is Western media always this… shallow?”

Sunny laughed. “You haven’t seen them talking about twerking. I think my first exposure to American cable news was when everyone was discussing Miley Cyrus twerking at the Grammys.”

Before Nari could ask what Miley Cyrus, the Grammys or twerking were, there was a knock at the door. “Hey,” The President’s voice came in, “you guys all decent in there?”

“We’re dressed,” I said, turning off the TV. “You can come in.”

The President walked in, still looking exactly like Robert Downey Jr. and sporting the exact same charisma. However, he was probably still capable of ordering or committing horrifying acts and still maintain his genial charisma. From my knowledge, under his regime, NIU had engaged in the yearly atrocity that was Hell Semester every year since its inception. He was one of most evil and dangerous people I had ever met.

“Man,” he said, sitting down on the bed opposite us, “you guys look like crap.” Noticing my frown and possibly misinterpreting it, he hastily added, “Still, from the sounds of things, you did more in two days than I expected you could do in a week.”

Suddenly I remembered something. “Hey, Kyle,” I said, “where are our cPhones?”

“Don’t worry,” The President said, “you gave them to the ranking crewman on the chopper that picked you up.” After I stared blankly at him for a few moments, he sighed and asked, “You wanna tell me what happened over there before you crash?”

We began to tell the story. Nari and I did most of the talking, with Sunny and Kyle only occasionally butting in. I noticed that The President just nodded and made noises of interest or comprehension.

Eventually, I got to the part of the story where we had encountered the Deets in the midst of their bizarre massacre/prayer session. “So,” I said, after a brief description, “something has been on my mind ever since.” I paused, waiting for someone to ask what it was. When no one asked, I continued, “Something I thought you’d be able to help us with, Mr. President. After all, when you commissioned John and me, you said you had a theory.”

“Ok,” The President said, straightening up, “what’s the problem?”

“In the prayer they said, The Dragon’s Teeth… priest, I guess, said something about how their creators had a master of their own.” As I said this, I watched for his reaction. “I just thought you might know something about this person. After all, we know that whoever created The Dragon’s Teeth are proficient in advanced robotics, cloning, and advanced energy sources, as well as possibly having the same teleporting technology as the Grenzefrontier. Some of the people who developed this stuff had to have come through Nowhere Island University at some point.”

The President shrugged. “I mean, yeah, it’s probable,” he said, “but the day you touched down in North Korea, a joint FBI/UNIX operation stopped someone who was about to turn the city of New Orleans into vampiric fish people. The guy behind that never went here.” He paused. “Though I kind of wish he had. We could use that kind of forward-thinking here.”

“Still,” Kyle said, surprising me, “someone should still check into it.”

“Don’t worry, I will,” The President said, “but I’ve seen this kind of thing play out. A lot. One monster creates another monster… then the second monster kills the first and gets busy creating a third. By the time we find the corpse of this benefactor, the Dragon’s Teeth will have already rebelled. Anyway, where were you?”

When we finally finished the story, The President clapped his hands together. “Well,” he said, “I’d say that you guys deserve bonuses. The only problem is, what are we going to do with Ms. Lee here?”

Sunny spoke up. “I talked with her. If you’re still looking for staff for next year, I can take a position and she can enroll in the school.”

The President considered this briefly. “Sure,” he said. “So long as she passes the Extraordinary Circumstances Entrance Examination. Which is a little hard for a five-year-old. If she can’t…”

“I’m nine,” Nari interrupted, rising to both the bait and the challenge. “And I will pass.”

“I’ll hold you to it,” The President, an amused smile playing across his lips. He got up. “Anyway,” he said, stretching a bit, “We’ve managed to get all you sophomores your rooms for next year and managed to wing it so that you can store your weapons here over the summer. If there’s anything else…”

“Actually,” I said, “there is.” Everyone turned to look at me. “I managed to take some Deet weaponry with me, and I have some plans for them. Do you mind if I keep them?”

The President smiled. “Well, when you put it like that, go nuts.” Without another word, he turned around and began to walk out.

As he did so, I closed my eyes. I’d have a few weeks of much-earned recuperation, but after that, I had a laundry list of things I needed to do. Preparing for the Dragon’s Teeth’s move, seeing what I could do about ISIS and the Grenzefrontier, seeing if working with UNIX was or wasn’t a lost cause, all while waiting for The President to slip up… next semester was going to be very interesting.

 

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Truth and Lies

It had been quite a while since we had escaped The Dragon’s Teeth. That victory was only marred slightly by the fact that they had obviously let us go. During that last few moments, a stray round had hit my hand. I don’t know how it had happened, I just know that right at the moment I had let go of a flashbang, a sudden pain, like a bee sting, began in my hand. When Sunny had gone to look at my hand, there was a small hole straight through it.

Nathan and I were down in the hold. The idea was that we were supposed to pretend to be a Korean fishing boat. Nari and Sunny were actually Korean, and if you didn’t look too closely, John could pass for one with his black hair.

Nathan could keep himself busy, seeing as he could use both hands. He was using his relative health productively, counting all the ammo we had left and cleaning our guns. I envied him. All I could do was sit and think. Invariably, that would bring me back to the past.

 

The incident my mind wandered to was back in 2013. Back when I was a Junior. The previous week, we had just won the state finals for the first time in our school’s history. The next day, a Saturday, the Superintendent had found out I was a post-op transsexual because some piece of shit on the other team was a sore loser with a computer and enough skill with it to do some digging. The next day, she held a meeting with my high school’s principal and the school board. During that time, they decided to remove me from the team and ban me from the boy’s bathroom.

To make it even worse, no one had contacted me about this until after the decision was made. I remember hearing grandpa shouting through the phone at the person who called to hand down the decision. He was the one who then told me. After seeing my face fall, he said, “Don’t worry, son. We’re going to fight this.”

However, that wasn’t the incident I remembered specifically. That Friday, I was waiting after school to talk to Chad, one of my friends on the football team. Of all my former teammates, he was the only one who hadn’t spoken up for me. He hadn’t denounced me either, but his silence still hurt.

Eventually, he walked out of the school, talking on his cell phone. “…Yeah, Dad… same place as always.”

I waited until he had hung up before I asked, “Why?” Chad jumped and turned around. I continued. “Why didn’t you speak up for me? You know me.”

Chad stared at me for a while, then finally asked, “Do I, man?” I recoiled, and Chad shook his head. “I’m sorry. Listen, I don’t know shit about trans people or people in general. I just catch a ball and run with it. I’m not even that good at that. But I thought you were… y’know, normal. It’s just weird for me that the star quarterback who bought us all beer after the game was over used to be a chick.” He then shot me a look. “I’m also weirded out by the fact you didn’t tell anyone.”

I considered this. Finally I said, “Do you want to know what happened the last time I told someone?”

Chad nodded. “Sure,” he said.

“Well,” I began, “there was this girl I really liked in my last school. I actually managed to work up the nerve to ask her out. I did and I…”

“Wait,” Chad said, interrupting, “you actually like chicks? I thought you were gay like Derek.”

“First off,” I said rolling my eyes, “Derek’s not gay, dude. That stopped being funny long ago. Second, I want a girl I can admit I’m trans to without her breaking up with me and posting that I’m trans on the internet.”

“She outed you?” Chad asked. “What a fucking bitch.”

“Yeah,” I said. For once, I could actually say it out loud. It felt good. “And I told her what would happen! To top it off, she found out by looking in my diary while I was in the bathroom.”

“Fuck, man,” Chad said. “That’s bullshit.” He paused. “I wouldn’t have said anything, you know.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I just… I’ve just been outed too many times before to trust anyone like that, y’know?”

“Where does she go?” Chad asked.

“Nowhere you’d know,” I said. I shook my head. “I should have known she’d do something like that. She was kind of school famous for outing this bisexual girl from California with famously homophobic parents. But she was hot, she liked football, and was really good at hiding her bitchiness.”

After a few minutes of talking about girls, we saw Chad’s dad in the distance. “Listen,” Chad said to me, “I got your back… but next time, tell me, ok?”

 

“Well,” Nate said, chuckling in relief, “It looks like we brought the right amount of ammo. We almost ran out!”

I agreed blandly, and went back to applying pressure to my wound. It was all the entertainment I had at the moment.

Nathan “Killer” Jacobs is kind of an odd guy. Some people are a little scared of him. I used to think that was just because a few of his friends decided to talk him up to save his life. After all, despite getting the first kill of Hell Semester, he was probably one of the least skilled people there.

After working with him on this Korean mission and another one where we’d saved Nowhere Island University from Nazis from space (both of which had, in my opinion, gone horribly wrong,) I’d gained a healthy respect for him. He was a naturally gifted point man and had an intense focus, especially when under pressure or angry. I could see why people were afraid of him. Still, while I have a healthy respect for his skills, he isn’t exactly Ulfric Trollbjorn or President Newton-Howell.

More important than any of that, he had been with me through some of the worst moments in my post-highschool life. After fighting the Grenzefrontier, he had been one of the first people I met who had expressed sympathy for losing my entire team. During this current crap, he, John, and Sunny had probably saved my life dozens of times. Remembering Chad, I owed it to be honest with him.

“Hey, Killer…” I finally said. “I need to tell you something. I feel like I haven’t been completely straight with you.” I suddenly realized that he might assume I was gay, like a lot of other people did. For some reason, I found that amusing, despite how unfunny it was. It was probably the stress of the past few days.

“Ok…” Nate said. Maybe it was just me, but he seemed a little on edge.

“So,” I said, taking a deep breath and began. “Around seventeen years ago, there was this little boy living with his parents. The problem was, this little boy had a girl’s body. Now, people react very strange when trans people show up, and usually in a bad way. The little boy’s parents reacted… very poorly. Of course, they hadn’t been very good parents to start out with. I don’t want to get into too much detail, but they were pretty much…”

I suddenly noticed Nate’s face. “You already figured out that little girl was me, right?” I asked flatly. I suppose it wasn’t hard. After all, May had almost blabbed it out when I had to pretend to take her hostage. Plus, I was deliberately hinting at this.

“Well, yeah,” he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. I guess, what with the hints I had been giving off, it kind of was. He wryly added, “But if you want, you can keep pretending you’re talking about someone else and I can pretend to be surprised at the big reveal.”

“Fuck that,” I said, “I’m done pretending. That’s the thing I hate most of all. When you’re a kid, all these little morality books constantly tell you how bad lying is. Then, if you’re trans and realize something is wrong, they force you to lie. Your teachers, your parents… hell, even people you don’t even know keep telling you that you’re wrong.”

 

The worst part is that they’re the assholes who’re wrong. Superintendent Melissa Thatcher was one of those people.

“I’m sorry,” she said, in a voice that was supposed to be kind and patient, “but we can’t accommodate you in this way. Sexual assault is a real problem, and if we give you the right to go into whichever bathroom you choose because you feel like a man instead of a woman, what rules are there to stop the boys in the schools from going into a bathroom by claiming they feel like a woman? Surely, you can understand.”

I had never met Mrs. Thatcher before and I had never set foot in town hall, either, but I had heard that patronizing garbage before. The way she had said “Sexual assault is a real problem,” in fact, was a good indicator of how misinformed she was. First off, she had implied that the problems facing trans youth, such as being abandoned, harassed, and denied medical care weren’t “real” problems. Secondly, she seemed to think that to be raped required you to be a cis-gendered woman. Yes, cis women do get raped, and that is a huge problem. But so do cis men and trans people.

However, the real problem was a certain flaw in her logic. “Mrs. Thatcher,” I said as she looked down on me from the central plinth and while what felt like the entire town staring at me, “I appreciate that sexual assault is a very serious problem that disproportionately affects the most vulnerable among us. To solve this problem, you feel as if you should keep anyone with…” I hesitated, not sure how crass I should be. I settled with as scientific and polite as possible. “…male genitalia out of the women’s bathrooms and locker rooms. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Thatcher said. “Boys should be in the boy’s locker room and girls should be in the girl’s locker room. I would have thought that obvious.”

“The problem with that is,” I said, “I am a straight man in every sense of the word.”

“But your birth certificate says you’re female,” Mrs. Thatcher said.

“I know what it says,” I said impatiently. “I know that my name and gender there don’t match what it says on my enrollment form. That’s because my physical gender is now male. I am a straight man, in both a physical and mental sense. If you are willing, I can call upon several doctors and psychologists to testify. Or I could drop my pants.” There was a mixture of aggrieved muttering, curious murmurs, and barely stifled laughter.

“Miss Rockford,” Mrs. Thatcher said, “You lied on your enrollment form. You lied to your classmates. Most importantly, I think you might even be lying to yourself. You are already on very thin ice. I would suggest that you act with civility.”

“Mrs. Thatcher,” I said, “I am a man. I may have had to have had some gene therapy in order to physically be one, but I am a man.” The audience muttered amongst themselves, but I continued on. “Until recently, I’ve also been a coward. Every time my birth gender has been discovered, I’ve changed schools because I couldn’t deal with being dragged out in front of terrified parents who believed I was the boogeyman.

“Today, I’m going to stop being a coward and stand up for myself. I’m not give up my rights as a man because of what some scumbags might have done or might do. In fact, I’d be surprised if any rapist or peeping tom goes to the lengths of pretending to be trans just to enter a bathroom.” I sighed. “But that’s just my take on it. If you’ll turn to page forty-five of the handout you’ve been given, you’ll be able to see some of the doctor’s testimony I have been talking about.”

 

I suddenly realized I had been staring at the wall of the boat for several seconds. “Anyway,” I said, shaking my head to clear it, “where was I?”

“Your parents were pretty much something,” Nathan said. “I didn’t find out what.” He had been watching me the entire time. He has a pretty good poker face, I’ll give him that. Figuring out what he’s thinking can be more trouble than it should be.

“Oh,” I said, “basically, if you can think about generic child abuser stereotypes, then you’ll get a pretty good idea of what they are.” I hadn’t realized I had even mentioned them. Thanks to those two, I’m still surprised that people assume parents know what’s best for their kids. “They aren’t worth bothering about.” It wasn’t exactly true. More like it was better I didn’t think about them.

 

When I was little, even before I came out to my parents, I knew enough to watch out for when my dad was drunk. Mom was always pretty bad, always talking about how expensive it was to keep me around and how difficult I was, but she wasn’t violent, and there were ways to get her to stop, especially in public. Dad, however, wouldn’t stop. He made up for it by never going after me directly. I had to either be in his sight when he was drunk or mess up.

On my seventh birthday, I messed up while he was drunk. My dad was, as usual for a Friday, drinking and playing poker. This time, he had invited over his boss and some of his nicer co-workers instead of the regular bunch. That may have saved my life.

As soon as I had smelled the alcohol, I knew I needed to get out. He had gotten out one of the bottles of hard liquor that he claimed was for “important people” but often got drank when his favorite bar was closed or his drinking buddies canceled.

I could hear shouting from downstairs, but I ignored it. It rarely concerned me. Then I heard my dad marching up the stairs, obviously angry. When he slammed the door open, he shouted, “KAREN!”

“Y…yes dad?” I asked, now incredibly frightened. Even with the gene therapy and twelve years of growth, my dad is probably still bigger than I am. Of course, the odds are somewhat evened by my training now, but back then, he towered over me.

He grabbed me by my shirt and lifted me off my shirt. When he had brought me up to his face, he yelled, “LISTEN HERE, YOU LITTLE FAGGOT, WHEN YOUR MOTHER ISN’T HERE, IT’S YOUR JOB TO GET DRINKS!”

Then he did something I will never forget. He threw me across the room. Eleven years later, I would get flashbacks when I watched Ulfric Trollbjorn do the same thing countless times. My dad didn’t throw very, but the brief moment I was airborne was the scariest of my entire life. I fell on my arm. In the split second before my head hit the wall, causing me to lose consciousness, I could hear it break.

When I came to, I saw my dad’s boss bent over me. “Karen,” he asked, his face blurry, yet concerned, “are you ok?”

“My chest hurts…” I wheezed. I then blacked out again.

 

“Anyway,” I said, “the day my grandad came to take me away from them was the happiest day of my life.” I still remember the first time I’d met him. It was a few days after I’d woken up in the hospital. I heard him before I saw him, the tap of his cane echoing on the tile floor, and his gruff voice shouting at hospital staff. He’d come limping into my ward with my dad’s boss like he was the cavalry.

I remember the first thing he said. “Karen,” he said, his eyes brimming with tears, “I am so sorry. I should’ve been there for you.

 

Nate broke me out of my reverie. “How did that happen?” he asked.

I laughed. “I honestly didn’t know I had a grandfather,” I said. “But he knew all about me. I didn’t find out about him until I was seven. Apparently, old man Kyle Chapman thought my dad was trouble and was keeping an eye on him. When my dad gave me a couple broken ribs for my birthday, he filed for custody of me. Apart from the people I came in with and my football team, he was the only person who I had ever told I was trans after the gene therapy.”

“Wait,” Nathan asked, “gene therapy? I thought gender reassignment was a surgical procedure.”

“Normally it is,” I admitted, “but my grandad was a former teacher at NIU. He knew a guy back there who could give me the full treatment. Genetically, I’m a completely different person from Karen Rockford.”

 

I actually remembered the conversation before the first round of gene therapy. “Are you sure about this, son?” Grandpa asked as we walked into the clinic, his cane tap-tapping on the ground. I had only known him for a little over a year at that point, but I had learned that I was the only person he slowed down for. “Because… what’s about to happen to you isn’t like flipping a switch. It’ll take a long time, two to three years, in fact, and it might not even work the way you and that da… darned egghead want it to. It also’s never been done on a human being before, which scares the heck outta me. If you have any doubts…”

I looked up at him. “Grandpa,” I said earnestly. “I’ve never been more sure about anything in my entire life. This is what I want.”

Grandpa nodded. “I hope you’re right, Kyle.” I warmed inside. Every time anyone called me that, I felt validated. With grandpa, it was even better. “I do suppose you know who you are better than anyone else.”

 

The rest of the conversation between Nate and me was much better than I expected. I got the sense that he had known, or at least suspected for some time, but was cool with how long it had taken for me to come out to him. Eventually, we trailed off and the conversation ended.

As the silence continued, I realized that for some reason, I still had a bad feeling, like something was going to happen soon. I sighed. Things had been going wrong recently. All my friends on the football team who had followed me into Nowhere Island University were dead. So were two people who had gone on this mission. Ok, Jeong might be alive, but he had been burned to a crisp. The reality of the situation was probably that he was dead.

And the damndest thing? Grandpa had warned me about it. After midterms in senior year, Professor Krieger had come to talk with us. During that time, he had told me honestly what the risks would be, and what the cost of failure could be. While Professor Kreiger was still there, my Grandpa just listened politely. When Kreiger was done, Grandpa showed him out.

As we watched Krieger’s Land Rover drive away, Grandpa said, “If you want my advice, I wouldn’t join him.”

“Grandpa,” I said, “I respect you, but… I can’t just sit this out. It’s too big. Besides, when you were my age…”

“I was drafted.” Grandpa said. “I may have won a few medals, but none of those goddamn hunks of metal were worth watching my buddies get killed. The only reason I stayed in the army was because I had no idea what to do with myself when I was through. By the time that Newton-Howell bastard started up NIU, your Grandmother had left, and she’d taken your mom and your uncles with you because I was such a mess.”

He turned to look me in the eye. “Listen, son,” he said, almost pleadingly. “Everything I’ve done since I’ve met you, I’ve done so you wouldn’t end up like me.”

Needless to say, I didn’t listen to him. Now, five of my friends who had stood by me and tirelessly worked to get me back in school were dead. All because we wanted to be heroes.

No, that was wrong. It was because I had wanted to be a hero that my friends were dead. It wasn’t their fault my friends had decided to trust me. I had led them to victory before. I was the one who should have realized football was completely different from spying. If I had, the only thing that probably would have changed would be that my friends would still be alive. NIU would still have stopped the Nazis, and I would have had a chance at that normal life I’d always wanted.

This kind of guilt, needless to say, is hard to live with. However, based on what my gut was telling me, I might not have to live with it much longer.

I shook my head. No. I wasn’t going to die this close to safety. Not when I had this much to atone for. Besides, I was being irrational. We’d left North Korea. We were safe.

Weren’t we?

 

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Track 22: Help is on the Way

I have to admit: looking at my best friend slowly bleeding out made me freeze up. It didn’t help that the only member of our party who wasn’t dead, injured or captured was a precocious nine-year-old engineer who had never fired a gun.

Kyle was first to make a suggestion. “We can’t continue this,” he said. “We need to surrender. The next wave will kill us.”

“Fuck that,” Sunny snarled in a vicious tone I hadn’t imagined her capable of. “While you guys were fighting up here, they were trying to negotiate with me.” I suddenly remembered that during our fight, we had heard the chatter of AK fire. Sunny must have realized what the South Korean SWAT were attempting and ended the negotiations aggressively. Another path closed.

“You didn’t…” Kyle said, realizing the same thing I had.

“I did,” Sunny said.

Suddenly, before an argument could start up, the radio chirped. “Hey,” a static-distorted voice said, “we’re about twenty minutes out from your position. Can you meet us out at the rear of the warehouse?”

“Sorry,” I said, “we’ve got a man in critical condition. Can you bring a stretcher to the second floor?”

“No problem,” the person on the other end claimed. “Besides, we’ve got a lot of firepower with us.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Be advised, there’s a sniper on a boat and another on a water tower.”

“Thanks for the heads up. We’ll keep an eye out for them. Also sounds like there’s a chopper.

I turned off the radio, new momentum flowing through me. “Ok,” I said, “what we need now is to get into a defensive position. What do we have? What’s our ammo count? Can we move John somewhere a little more safe?”

Sunny shook her head as she opened her bag. “Sorry,” she said, reaching in to take out a blood bag. “At this stage, with my complete attention, he might live. If we move him, it could break the surgical glue. Then he’d only have eight minutes.”

“So, functionally, we only have two people,” I said.

“Sorry,” Sunny said.

“That’s ok,” I reassured her, “It just means things will be a little difficult.” I noticed that Nari didn’t offer to help out. On the one hand, she’d already done more than enough and it didn’t seem like she had come out the better for it. On the other, we needed every person we could get and I was disturbed by her silence and motionlessness.

Apparently, she wasn’t the only one I should have worried about. “Ok,” Kyle said, “this is all well and good, but how are we going to survive the next wave? I’m pretty sure that this,” he indicated his MP-7, “isn’t strong enough to penetrate their body armor. And even if I could fire my rifle, I only have a mag left.”

“Then aim low or high,” I said. “Or borrow a rifle our friends have dropped. We’re getting out of here.” I paused, then said, “That reminds me, I need to refill my G-3’s mags. If you’re not using it, I could use some 7.62. Meanwhile, Nari, you should get into that cubicle. Stay down, and by that, I mean lie on the ground face down with your hands interlocked behind your neck. That’s probably the best way to avoid getting shot.”

Everyone moved to their assigned tasks, though I noticed that only one of us was really enthusiastic. Nari was dead-eye and shivering, Kyle seemed to have convinced himself we were all going to die, and even I was moving slowly due to pain. This was in sharp contrast to the grim efficiency with which Sunny was working on John.

Finally, when all the supplies had been distributed, Kyle and I were able to scavenge several mags of 5.56 from John and the dead Koreans. We also had a few grenades, mostly smoke and flashbangs, but there were a few frags and an incendiary.

Actually, I have a confession to make. When I had first walked past them, I didn’t notice it at first. However, when I was searching one of the SWAT officers, I noticed that he was still breathing. Upon seeing the rise and fall of his chest, I stood up and unholstered my Berretta.

As I stood there for a moment, working up the… well, I don’t want to call it courage… the whatever-it-was to murder a dying man in cold blood, the SWAT officer’s eyes fluttered open. He slurred something in Korean. If it had been something in anger or even if he had begged and pleaded, it would have been easier. Instead, his brown eyes and soft voice conveyed his confusion despite the fact I had no idea what he was saying.

“I’m sorry,” I said. Then I fired. The officer’s eye exploded into red goop. After a pause, I resumed looting his corpse for anything useful. He was using a small, silenced SMG, so he didn’t seem to have anything useful. Luckily, there wasn’t anything personal, like a wedding ring or a photo. I don’t think I could have dealt with that.

I sighed. Grabbing my G-3 and the two assault rifles I’d collected (I believe they’re called K-1As) I turned around to see Kyle looking at me, his expression unreadable.

I ignored his look, and said, “So, if you want, here’s an assault rifle. Also, I think we shouldn’t bother with the smoke grenades. It’ll just reduce visibility for us.”

“Right,” Kyle said. “I’ll toss them and just take the more potent stuff.” His tone of voice was as unreadable as his face. It could be anything from disgust at my actions to despair. He then stopped talking.

We then began the waiting game. It seemed like the police surrounding us had decided to drive us mad by simply waiting us out. All we heard outside was the sound of sirens and a helicopter orbiting us. I could imagine waiting like this, not expecting a ride. I could see digging down like this for potentially hours, waiting for the inevitable second attack.

Finally, we heard a loud thump from downstairs. I moved so I could look down the stairs, but still use the corner as cover. I couldn’t see all the way down, but if anyone used this stair as an entrance, I had the drop on them. As I leaned out, I heard the sounds of people in heavy armor approaching rapidly. Still, I could probably drop a few of them.

I was instantly proven wrong. Charging at me like he thought he was The Flash or something, was a guy with a riot shield. Behind him, struggling to keep up, despite lugging less weight was a line of SWAT officers with shotguns, assault rifles, SMGs and all the other bits of close-combat goodness that the South Korean SWAT carry. I was too busy panicking to get a good count.

“SHIELD!” I called out as I opened fire. Before the advancing line of death could return fire and drive me further into cover, I noticed that my bullets were bouncing off the shield. So videogames are right about something, I thought in detached horror as the damn thing kept advancing like an over-excited puppy.

Then, for a split second, I saw a red tube bounce down into the stairwell. A second or two later, and there was a hiss and screams. I moved back into a firing position. What I saw nearly made my stomach turn.

The stairs had been turned into an inferno. Most of the team that had been sent in was throwing themselves over the edge trying to get out of it, but the guy with the shield was backing down slowly, despite having gone up like a gas-soaked torch. Seeing me stick my head out, he fired a few rounds at me from a pistol. He was interrupted by a short burst from Kyle’s MP-7. There was a spray of red out the side of his head and he fell backwards.

Suddenly, from out at sea, there was the roar of what sounded like a minigun in the distance. It lasted for a second, but I could hear the helicopter start to have… difficulties. A second later, the radio crackled to life. “Hey,” our rescuer said, “we’re just about to get in here. Where on the second floor are you?”

“If you’re coming in from the sea,” I said, “there should be some stairs nearby. We’re right at the top.”

“Roger that,” he said. “You should hear us come in.”

The next few minutes weren’t exactly silent, but I’d still describe them as way too quiet. After the initial shouts of surprise that come whenever you see a friendly helicopter get hit, the SWAT outside quieted down. There was still the sound of sirens, but there was no gunfire and no attempt to make an entrance. At least, no attempt that I could hear.

After a few moments of it being too quiet, Kyle said, “I don’t like it.”

“Agreed,” I said, “but we can take advantage of this. Collect anything that we’ve brought with us. I want to be ready to move as soon as our ride gets here. Kyle, once you’ve done that, make sure they can’t come back through that window again.”

“Right,” he said. “Should I use John’s gun?”

“Sure,” I said. “Now move it. We don’t have all day.” There was a flurry of movement, but it was over pretty quickly. After all, we carried all our stuff on our backs. During that time, I decided that it would probably be better to switch to one of the captured carbines, seeing as how much ammo for my G-3 had been either spent or destroyed by a single shot. I had the G-3 in my pack and about three mags (including the one in the gun) collected for the K-1when I heard a low rumbling sound. It was the garage doors in the front of the warehouse.

I turned around to tell Kyle, just in time to see him duck back behind the cube wall. A split second later, there was the thump and a bright light. He then leaned back out of cover to begin firing from where the flash had come from.

Before I could make up my mind as to whether I should go help him, a voice came in from over the radio, “Hey guys,” he said, “We have visual. Touching down in two and a half minutes. How does resistance look?”

“Pretty hard,” I said. “I’m going to see if I can soften it up a bit.” I dropped the radio and moved into a firing position. As I went down to the landing, I took out three of my remaining grenades.

As I let the first grenade go, I noticed that the intruding groups were mostly patrol cops. A few had assault rifles, K-2s, I believe, and pump-action shotguns of some kind. Most, however, had pistols.

Luckily, they noticed my grenade before they noticed me. Someone shouted something in Korean, then there was a thump. Apparently, I had just used one of the few remaining frags. Then there was a thump and flash from a flashbang, then the hiss of my incendiary.

I quickly noticed that the garage doors were still rising. Dropping to a knee and praying to God that my grenades had distracted them, I aimed at one of the motors and let loose a short burst.

The good news was that enough of the rounds hit to make the door start falling down. The bad news is that I gave my position away. Instantly, one of the pistol-wielding officers began firing. I crouched down behind the sheet of metal on the landing as pistol rounds began hitting it. Luckily, the thin metal seemed to block a few of the rounds.

Deciding that I wanted to make sure nothing more powerful got through, I decided to aim at one of the officers with a rifle. The one I chose was drawing a bead right at me. A lucky burst must have nicked his artery. Most of the rest got their heads down after that. But a few others decided to shoot at me.

One of them got a round of buckshot off at me. Two balls shattered the left lens of my glasses, a third came close enough to my neck to burn and several dented the metal. He disappeared behind cover before I could pick him out. Then a well-aimed burst of rifle fire penetrated the metal wall, knocking me backwards.

Body armor, in this situation, is a blessing and a curse. One the one hand, I was alive. If I hadn’t been wearing armor, I’m pretty sure I’d have drowned in my own blood or died from shock when little bits of my heart flew out my back. On the other hand, my already bruised or broken ribs now felt like they were on fire.

I was debating getting up when the explosions began. Shortly after that, the gunfire started up as well. Kyle had been having his own battle upstairs, but this was different. It sounded like someone with a collection of assault rifles and heavy weapons had suddenly arrived. After a few seconds, there was a series of loud bangs inside the warehouse, followed by sound of gunfire.

Summoning whatever strength I had left, I got up and took a look down. Below me were a group of men with heavy Kevlar armor and a collection of assault rifles, shotguns, SMGs and even a machinegun. Three of them were heading towards the stairs. I began halfheartedly covering them.

When one of the three heading towards the upper levels got to me, he said, somewhat jokingly, “Let me guess, you’re the one who needs the stretcher.”

“Actually…” I gasped out, “… I’m the closest we have to full health.” Upon seeing the man’s horrified look, I said, “Just kidding. Our medic’s working on the critical upstairs. Follow me.”

I got up and moved as fast as I could. When I got to the top, I called out, “Guys, ride’s here.”

“Good!” Kyle said over the sound of his own gunfire. “I’m just about out.”

Two of the newcomers began unfolding a stretcher. The third took charge. “Ok,” he said, pointing to Sunny, “you help us get him mobile.” He pointed at me. “You get to the boat. I’ll help stand guard and kibbutz.”

“Should I take Nari?” I asked.

“Who’s Nari?” one of the medics asked.

“A VIP,” Sunny said.

“Ok,” the leader said. “She goes with you. I don’t want any more injuries. We’ve got a year’s worth of income riding on this.”

“Hear that, Nari?” I asked.

In response, she shot out from the cubicle she was in. “Definitely!” she said. Her blank look was now replaced by one of terror. Poor kid. She was going to be traumatized for the rest of her life.

“What the hell?” the lead merc asked. “She’s got to be seven at most!”

“Sir,” Nari said, impatiently, but somehow with some modicum of respect, “I’m nine.”

I ignored the interplay. “Ok, Nari,” I said, kneeling down to look her in the eye, “Stay with me. If I fall down, just run.”

She nodded solemnly. Reassured, I got up. Apparently, kneeling had been a mistake. I ignored the pain, got up and began running. The trip passed in a haze of pain. Somehow, I ended up face down on the deck of a small patrol boat, vague, yet extremely painful, memories of climbing a short ladder seared into my brain.

When my vision finally cleared, I noticed that Kyle was staring down at me. “You ok, man?” he asked as figures in Kevlar began getting onto the boat. Near the front of the boat, the two medics we had seen were taking John down below decks.

“Sure,” I said as I got up, my voice weak and wheezy. Then I vomited from pain and fell back to my knees. My hand fell in the puddle of sick I had just made. “Just… peachy. We going soon?”

In answer, there was a short, yet ground-shaking burst from the boat’s autocannon. Then, a jet of heat lit up the air. From my position on the ground, I could see that it was from a flame-thrower mounted next to the cannon. I turned to see that the cannon had blasted into where we had been holed up. The stream of napalm had been directed into the opening.

As soon as the stream of jellied fire shut off, the boat we were on, as well as two other similarly armed boats, one in front and one behind, took off like rockets.

When the acceleration got back to reasonable levels, Kyle hauled me to my feet. “So,” he asked, a tired, yet giddy grin lighting up his face as he helped me down into the hold, “does that answer your question?”

I laughed, the pain nearly making me hurl again. We were going home.

 

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Track 21: In Which We Fight The Law

The two people I saw moving towards our rescuers, I suddenly noticed, were oddly dressed. It was the docks, yet they were wearing suits, sunglasses, and single earbuds, just like the people picking us up. Both were also reaching for concealed objects. One of our escorts, a short brown man with a lot of tattoos realized how wrong it was and pulled a pistol, firing three times.

As the man fell back, he suddenly dropped what he was holding: a wallet. As he flung it away, it opened, revealing a glint of gold. Our escort had just shot a cop. The cop’s partner, meanwhile, had gone for his gun. He got a shot off, but our escort had already shifted his aim. Our escort shot a fourth time as he staggered back, and the cop’s head snapped back.

As this was happening, police cars began streaming in, blocking our escape route ahead. On either side, I could hear the same thing happening. Even before they stopped, patrol officers began getting out and aiming guns.

Upon seeing this, our other escort swore and grabbed at his left armpit, his back to the window and rear wheel while beginning to crouch. A sniper rifle cracked, and a small red dot appeared on his forehead. He slid the rest of the way to the ground, the once-black SUV now splattered with dark red blood and his pistol still loosely gripped in his hand.

I hadn’t even waited for the sniper to form a plan. “Warehouse, right side!” I said.  “Sunny, John, I need cover fire right now!”

Sunny nodded and began firing from the hip, her AK still concealed under her parka. John waited to shrug his parka off, then began firing his ZMR. Our remaining escort, sensing an opportunity, switched to either burst fire or full auto on his pistol and began firing at the cops.

I didn’t look at the effectiveness, just thanked God that I was right about the boat blocking us from view of the sniper as I ran to the door, making sure to drag Nari with me. Luckily, the door had been left open.

“Ow, ow, ow!” Nari said as I dragged her along, “You’re hurting me!”

“Sorry,” I said as Kyle filed in, followed by Sunny. “But it’s better than being shot, isn’t it?” As she opened her mouth to say something, I turned back to see as John come inside. “Is our friend coming?” I asked.

John looked back outside, reloading his rifle as he did. “He’s just got out from… oh. No.” He ducked back in. A bullet hit the door as he did, and the sounds of gunfire quickly ceased. “He isn’t coming.”

“Close the door and follow me,” I said. “We’re going to see if we can sneak by them.”

The inside of the warehouse was mostly empty, except for a few boxes scattered around near the front. We navigated around them and went to the other side. I pulled the sliding metal door open and peered out.

A bullet whizzed past my face. It came from a group of officers advancing through a maze of shipping crates. Most were carrying pistols, but a few were carrying short assault rifles or pump-action shotguns. I wasn’t able to get a good count on them because they scattered as soon as I opened fire. I did manage to get one, though.

After a few more rounds exchanged, I ducked back inside and threw a flashbang blindly. For a moment, the firing stopped. I used that moment to close the door. Unfortunately, that moment ended midway through closing and one cop began firing in short bursts at the closing door. The heavy metal door absorbed all the rounds, but it was still somewhat terrifying. The gunfire stopped completely as the door closed.

As I locked the door, I said, “Everyone, find all the entrances and seal them up. We need some time to figure out our next play.”

John sighed. “Why couldn’t we have gone back to the boat?”

“Apart from the fact it was running on fumes?” I asked. “One of our escorts was shot by someone out at sea. I’m pretty sure that the person was on a boat. You want to be out on the ocean with a sharpshooter following you when the boat stops working?”

Before John could answer, his cPhone rang. “It’s the company that was supposed to extract us,” he said covering the phone’s microphone with his hand. “What should I tell them?”

“Give it to me,” I said. “Then start securing the building. We need to get out of here without killing any more cops.”

I put the phone to my ear as the rest of my team began to move off. From the speaker, a voice was asking, “Hello? Hey, you there?”

“This is the team leader,” I said. “The guy you were talking to earlier is a little busy.”

“What the fuck happened?” the voice on the other end asked. “We were monitoring our guys that got sent to pick you up and all the sudden there’s gunfire!”

I noticed the hint of suspiciousness in his voice. I sighed. “The police came and everything went to hell. Honestly. We’re way too messed up to risk a firefight. We’re inside…” I covered the receiver and called out to Sunny, “Hey, Sunny, what warehouse are we in?”

“Armacham Korea,” Sunny said.

“…The Armacham Korea warehouse,” I said. “We still need an evac. If you don’t know where that is, just follow the sounds of sirens and gunfire.”

“We’re not coming,” the man on the other end said. “We’ve already lost two men and the cops are obviously on our tail, so…”

I snapped. “You listen here, asshole,” I said, “we have some very important information. Our employer will be pissed if it were to fall into hands other than his. If you know anything about him, you’ll know that he’s got a pretty long reach, and if that doesn’t work, you should know that plan B is turning ourselves in.”

“Ok, ok,” he said. “We’ll pick you up on our way out. We’ll be there in thirty. Just sit tight.”

“Good,” I said. “Be there.” I hung up the phone. “Alright,” I asked the rest of the team, “how are things?”

“We’re mostly sealed off,” John said as he climbed a ladder. “I’m going to see if I can jam these garage doors. Then, we’ll be sealed in pretty tight.”

Kyle, who had just finished extending the stock on his MP-7 with one hand, said, “There’s a second level upstairs. We should check it out.”

“Ok,” I said, “we’ll check it out together.”

Nari, who had been hiding behind one of the crates, said, “What should I do?”

“Stay down here,” I said. “If they’re planning on breaching the upstairs, I don’t want…” Suddenly, there was a knock on the door we had come in. “Change of plans,” I said, “Sunny, answer them. Nari, come upstairs with us. When we get to the top, stay there.”

She nodded. I noticed that she had pulled the pistol she had taken. “You know,” I said as we headed up the metal staircase, “it might help you survive if you just drop that.” Behind me, I could hear Sunny talking in Korean with someone. They both sounded tense.

Nari remained silent. Finally, when we got to the second floor, an office area, she said, “But you’ll need help, won’t you? I don’t want you guys to die.”

We were at the rear of the building. A maze of cubicles separated us from the front. Behind us was a window with curtains drawn. Judging by the light, all the windows had blinds drawn. I wondered if the company that had set this warehouse up had been doing some shady dealings.

I turned to her and knelt down to look her in the eye. “At this point,” I said, “I don’t think you can make much of a difference by fighting. If you survive, you can do a lot more.” I stood up. “Besides, it’s our job to protect you, not the other way around.”

“I guess…” Nari said. She didn’t seem convinced, but after a while, she smiled, pretending to be reassured. Suddenly, there came the sound of glass breaking. “What was that?” Nari’s face was now worried.

“Stay. Here.” I said. I removed my silencer and Kyle and I began moving towards where the sound had come from. The maze of cubicles masked our movements, but they also made it impossible to see the enemy. It also was a completely nerve-racking experience. Every single cubicle contained a chance for a SWAT officer with a submachinegun to pop out and unload a mag into our faces, and the flimsy wood and cloth walls offered as much protection as a sheet of paper.

This paranoia is the only reason I’m alive. Before turning a corner, I always peeked out to make sure it was safe. I’d also check every cubicle. This made us slower than we’d normally be, but because I took a peek that last time, I saw that several South Korean SWAT Officers were standing by a broken window in a triangle formation, with a fourth climbing up.

Before the one facing in my direction saw me, I motioned for Kyle to stop. I then reached in my belt for a grenade. There were only two frags left. I sighed. It wasn’t like there would be a way to take them out in a non-fatal way anyway. I took it out, pulled the pin, then rolled it down the hall.

When the muffled thud came, along with a scream, the two of us turned the corner and headed down the hall. Four bodies were scattered throughout the intersection. One tried to raise his submachinegun, a K-7, I think, but Kyle shot him. Almost simultaneously, another SWAT officer raised his hand and a pistol over the ledge of the window. Before he could fire, I put a bullet into his head.

Then, as soon as the SWAT officer fell, a sniper shot rang out. I flung myself into a nearby cubicle, firing at distant water tower where I had seen a flash. I had fired three, four or five rounds in a panic, then my gun ran dry just before I got into the cubicle.

I looked into the opposite cubicle. There, Kyle sat, breathing heavily, face contorted in pain. Worryingly, his bad arm was bleeding. The sniper was either a bad shot or had been startled by one of his colleagues dying.

Suddenly, I heard footsteps. Yet another SWAT officer leaned around the corner. We both drew pistols as someone called out in warning. Both of us managed to get several shots off. His grouping was perfect. Four shots in the chest, right where my heart should be. The only reason I’m still alive is that I had two magazines and a thick Kevlar plate right above my heart. I staggered back, my chest on fire and rapidly bruising up.

I, on the other hand, fired only three times. My grouping was also terrible. Two shots went in his center mass… and the third traveled up and hit him in the neck. The .357 SIG round completely tore his neck open. He fell backwards, blood spraying everywhere.

As I slid down the itchy cubicle wall, pain shooting through my chest, I realized that .357 SIG and 9x19mm weren’t going to do the job. I dropped the SIG and ejected the empty magazine. Each movement brought me massive amounts of pain, but I could do it on autopilot.

That was extremely lucky for me. Just as I cocked the G-3, what I hoped was the last SWAT officer burst into view. I fired from the hip, and he fired wildly. If I had been standing up, I would have gotten a face full of lead. The SWAT officer didn’t have time to correct his mistake. Four 7.62mm NATO rounds slammed into his chest and he fell back, bleeding heavily.

I sighed in relief, then began coughing. My chest was hurting so badly I felt woozy. Kyle, meanwhile, was trying to bandage his arm with one hand. Despite the pain, he also looked relieved. Then, from back where we had entered the second floor, the sounds of gunfire came. We paused, looking at each other in horror. Then, after a few seconds of silence, there came the single, solitary pop of a pistol.

We needed to move. But to do that, we needed to take care of that sniper. I flipped down my 3x scope and leaned out, praying the sniper didn’t see me. I then tried to find the water tower.

When I did, I saw that I was right. There was a dude with a rifle on the catwalk around the top. Eyeballing the range, as the angle I was leaning made adjusting the range impossible, I drew a bead on the sniper. “Kyle,” I gasped out, when I thought I had a good shot, “When I take the shot, I want you to get the fuck out of here and check on Nari.” The effort it took to talk left me out of breath and in a good deal of pain.

“I’m ready,” Kyle said.

He didn’t sound ready, but I didn’t have much time. I took the shot. Then I collapsed on the floor from pain, nearly blacking out. Kyle began running. For a second, I thought he would get away cleanly. Then the sniper began firing wildly. One of the bullets even ricocheted off the ground in front of me and cracked my glasses.

I considered my options. There was no way I could make another shot, but I couldn’t just sit here and hope I didn’t die. I decided the best way to do this would be to crawl towards the window and hope the angle was such that the sniper couldn’t see me.

After I had used my feet to collect my discarded SIG, I began the arduous journey. When I had gotten to the point where I was under the window’s ledge, I turned back towards the rear. When I was near a wall, I struggled to my feet. The pain was so much I nearly fell back down. After upchucking all the power sludge I had eaten that day, I broke into something approximating a run. My lungs burned and my vision turned black.

When I turned the corner, I almost fainted. The pain had obscured everything so much that I didn’t register Kyle until he said, “Killer! You’re alive!” I looked up. There he was, smiling in relief. “Didn’t think you’d make it.”

“Could… could say the same about you,” I said. “How are… how are the others?”

Kyle’s expression darkened. “You should see this for yourself.”

I began the process of staggering over to Kyle. When I was about halfway there, I stumbled over something. It was the corpse of a SWAT officer. There was one other. I instantly got a sinking feeling.

At the intersection where Kyle was, I looked to the left first. There, almost exactly where we had left her, was Nari. The key differences, however were the expression of shock on her face and the fact that smoke lazily drifted from the barrel of the salvaged M&P that was now in her possession.

As I turned my attention to the right, I noticed the corpse of the SWAT officer on the floor, his brain splattered across the floor. Judging by the vector and Nari’s smoking gun, he had been shot by Nari. His weapon, a K-1, was laying on the floor, as well as a ZMR.

When I finally was able to focus all the way to the right, I saw that Sunny was bent over a prone figure. I couldn’t see his face. “I’ve stopped the bleeding,” Sunny said, turning to face me, “but he needs a hospital.”

The person she was working on was John. His face was pale and his breathing was coming out in gasps. Then, Sunny asked a question that nearly broke me.

“Nate,” she asked, “what should we do?”

 

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