Track 20: A New Chapter

Nari and I were waiting at the airport a little after lunch for Andy and May to get back exactly one week later. The rain had slowly begun to be replaced by snow the entire week. Needless to say, we were waiting in the hangar.

“Did you finish the rifle bullet prototype?” Nari asked. We had been sitting around the terminal for quite a while.

“Yeah,” I said. “That part was pretty easy. Just make the rifle bullet, except longer.” I opened a bag. “I’ve got two alternate butt plates made and I’ve started on the rifle receiver.”

Nari looked at them. “Well,” she said, “one of them looks rather easy.” The one she was talking about was just a metal plate to fit around the two halves of the receiver. The only detailing it had was the holes at the top and bottom for the studs to attach and a loop for a sling.

“Yeah,” I said, “but the other’s going to be a pain. Not only did I decide to have it be collapsible, not only did I decide it had to take M-4 stocks, not only did I decide to have it be side-folding, but I decided it would fold to either side.”

Nari picked that one out of the bag. “I have seen standard M-4 stocks,” she said. “This is not one.”

“Well,” I said, “I decided to add an adjustable cheek rest. You can take that part off and put an M-4 stock on it.”

“Why do you need an adjustable cheek rest?” Nari asked.

“Some of it’s a shooter comfort thing,” I said, “some of it is so we don’t have to pay money in licensing fees or so we don’t have to buy externally for parts. Some of it is to fulfil a market niche that isn’t being filled. Most of it is because I thought I was getting too much sleep.”

“I know the feeling,” Nari said earnestly. “I haven’t been here very long, I’ll admit, but I love being here. Sure, the politics seem even more pointless than North Korea, but I can do whatever I want!” She smiled. “The things I have to do are easy enough to finish quickly, but challenging enough to be fun, and when I get done, I can do things like make these guns and guitar things.”

“Really?” I asked, not mentioning that my work was done less for the joy of working and more to save the world. “Are you making guitars?”

“Well,” Nari said, “I made a guitar and an amp. Now I’m learning how to play. I have to learn how to actually play before I really know what a good guitar is.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s good to hear.”

“Plus,” Nari said, “Our outdoor test was pretty successful.” She was right. We had set up some targets up in the forest and given the current generation Uilon Mangchi and the Ballpeen prototypes to our usual testers. The response had been very positive. No jams or misfires caused by inclement weather, and the weapons were easy to use while on the move.

“The only goddamned problem,” Cross shouted outside an abandoned bunker after he and Doc had “cleared” it of targets, “is that the damned things are too loud.”

“Yes,” Doc said, also shouting, “the ear protection we brought was insufficient, especially where it can echo. The muzzle flash is also very bright. I do not like it.”

“You kidding?” Cross said, “Nothing says ‘Get the fuck down!’ like a nice big muzzle flash. Anything that reminds people whose boss gets my vote.”

“Yes,” Doc said, “but you can do that with an AK. You can do that with an M-16. Yet they don’t give away your position better than a flare when you shoot them. Using these are suicide in an ambush.”

Back in the present, Nari must have been thinking the same thing. “I examined out the Pilum. Thank you for lend it, by the way.”

“Not a problem,” I said. “After all, I’m making money from the project as well.”

“Anyway,” Nari continued, “The flash hider can be replicated without too much cost. However, it turns out the barrel actually doubles as a sound suppressor. Not as efficient as a normal one, but still effective enough.”

“How?” I asked. “I mean, it has to be, it’s too quiet otherwise, but the barrel’s too thin to be a suppressor.”

“I don’t know,” Nari said, her face setting in a determined frown as she talked, “but whatever they’ve done, I can’t figure it out. It’s all internal and extremely tiny. But I’ll figure it out. And I will replicate it.” She paused. “Unless its nanotech. Then we’ll have to make a workaround.”

“Even if it isn’t nanotech,” I said, “the process sounds like it will be way too complex for Andy’s machines. I guess we’ll have to reduce noise the traditional way.” Suddenly, I heard the whine of a jet engine. “Well, I guess May and Andy are back.”

Nari perked up. “Good. Hopefully, they bring news of our glorious financial accomplishments. Also, May said she could get me some guitar-related books.”

“Does that mean you and May have made up?” I asked.

Nari shrugged. “I’m not sure,” she answered. “We do talk occasionally, but never about my work.” She sighed. “I do still like her. When she isn’t being wrong, she is quite kind and knows all the good music.”

“I see,” I said, noting her Megadeath t-shirt. “I would have thought she’d introduce you to more rap and less heavy metal.”

“We have undertaken our glorious journey into the heart of all things metal together,” Nari said. “I am more open to the sounds of self-styled demon slayers, she is more interested in the lyricism of the proletariat as they rise up against their oppressor.” She looked up to see the plane’s nose had just started to enter the hangar. “Good. They are almost here.”

We waited until the plane’s loading ramp opened. Andy and May began walking out, a look of extreme tiredness on their faces. “Oh, there you are,” May said upon seeing Nari and me. She and Andy staggered over to us, dragging their luggage. They looked somewhat zombiefied. “The good news is we were totally, one hundred percent successful. The bad news is that we need to sleep for several hours before we deal with Tim.”

“Don’t worry about him,” I said. “He’s got some kind of stomach virus. Or nerves. He had to leave us when…”

“We don’t need to know,” Andy said. “Anyway, did you guys get any transportation back to campus? The weather looks like complete crap.”

“They told us they’d have a shuttle waiting for you guys when you got back,” I said. “It should be right outside. You guys want me to carry anything?”

“Thanks,” May said, “but we’re good. We’ll tell you about our plans when we get to Andy’s room.”

After we had got there, May and Andy dropped their suitcase among the half-dismantled automated assembly lines and fell down on the bed. While they leant against each other and the wall, Nari and I stood among the industrial detritus, unsure of what to do with ourselves. Eventually, I asked, “So… do you want us to leave?”

“We can brief you, you don’t have to go,” May muttered. Her eyes were closed, and if they were open, they would have been directed mostly into Andy’s armpit.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “You guys seem like you’re pretty done.”

“Yeah,” Andy said, “but we’ve got one last thing to do.” With what seemed to me to be a massive effort, he opened his eyes. “First off, the FDA approved May’s surgical glue for a trial distribution. It’s going to be limited scale, but we’re still going to have to move out of my dorm room and that lab we’re borrowing.”

“That’s cool,” I said, “Timothy would be pleased to hear about that kind of growth.”

“Power sludge needs more trials,” May said absent-mindedly into Andy’s armpit. He giggled. Apparently, he was ticklish there. “They think it works a lil’ too well…”

“I wonder what the cowards think could go wrong,” Nari said.

“Addiction,” May muttered, “withdrawal…” I laughed at that. They’d obviously never tasted the stuff. “And more importantly, cancer. Cancer everywhere.”

At that last point, remembering my first conversation with May, and how she wasn’t sure how safe Power Sludge was, I said, “Wait, do they have evidence for that last bit? Because I ate only that for an entire semester.”

“So did I,” May said sleepily. “And so did everyone in Hell Semester against my wishes.” She yawned. “Guess we’ll find out in five to twenty years.”

“But they don’t know?” I asked. “They haven’t confirmed it?”

“They just kept naming possible side-effects because the effects are so dramatic,” May said, and I could see herself sort of collapse in on herself. “They didn’t just stop with cancer, they think it could cause everything from indigestion to multiple organ failure.” She looked up at me. “Please… Nate, you have to believe me… I never wanted to give Power Sludge to anyone. Least of all the Hell Semester recruits.”

“Hey,” I said, “I’ll let you know if I start feeling funny. Until then, is there anything that rules out everyone who’s ever eaten it being completely ok? I mean, asides from being dumb enough to enroll at NIU?”

“No,” May said, “and that’s the thing that gets me. I don’t know if the people who’ve used my inventions are going to one day start getting sick.” She sighed. “Anyway, moving on to other things I’m involved with that are probably going to kill people, we had a meeting with the FBI director for procurement. At his office. Which was in the J. Edgar Hoover building.”

“So,” Nari asked, “is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Well,” May said, “he confirmed that the clients Krieger found are on the level. Also, we’re in the competition for the new FBI sidearm. For better or worse.”

“Definitely for better,” Nari said. “We have made the most powerful pistol the world has seen. Anything that points our weapons at The Dragon’s Teeth and other enemies of all peaceful peoples can only be seen as a good thing.”

“I thought you didn’t care enough about propaganda to translate it,” I said sardonically.

Nari shrugged. “I learned. It is an effective way to communicate.”

“We just have one more announcement,” Andy said. “Then we’d kind of like you get out so we can sleep.”

“Not a problem,” I said. “I actually have some things to be doing.”

“Me too,” Nari said. “I have some work to do, and Sunny is planning on having a movie night at her place. I think we are watching something involving over-muscled men with guns kill people. They sound like propaganda films from home… except they are American.”

“Is one of them called Die Hard?” I asked. “Or Rambo? Or Commando? Because those are kind of classics when it…”

“Hey,” May said, “focus.”

“Anyway,” Andy said, “we’ve told you how the glue’s going to require us to move to the main factory, right? And you know that this factory is slightly farther away than Washington is, right?” Nari and I nodded. Andy, seeing that, continued. “Also, if we get the FBI contract, we’re going to need to set up that space for production of the Uilon Mangchi and the Ballpeen as well. This is gonna require a lot of my time, and probably a lot of May’s as well.”

“When are you going to do your schoolwork?” Nari asked. I didn’t bother to ask any questions. I could already guess where this was going. There was no way they’d be able to continue their education and run a business as ambitious as Olympus Incorporated.

“We aren’t,” Andy said. “We’re going to be taking a leave of absence. We’re leaving Nowhere Island University.”


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Track 19: Brace Yourself

The next week, May and Andy were gone off to Washington DC to finalize the FDA approval of May’s various inventions. Then they’d be off to the warehouse they had rented as a factory for Olympus Inc.

“It’s in Worcester?” I asked when I heard about the factory’s location. “You mean you were in Massachusetts all summer and didn’t contact me? I was only an hour away!”

“Well,” May said, “we didn’t exactly have a way to contact you.”

“What about the cPhone?” I asked. “It should work outside…”

“It’s kind of illegal,” Andy pointed out. “I mean, the way they work outside the campus is by pretending to be a phone on the strongest network. You AMS guys may be crazy enough to casually commit theft of service, but I’m not.”

That had been on Saturday as I had walked them to the island’s airport. Nari had wanted to come, but Sunny hadn’t let her. I stayed there in the surprisingly light drizzle (well, light for NIU in mid-October) as the plane taxied down the runway. I then started to walk back to the campus.

However, for some reason, I turned to look at the forest. I had run through those woods twice a day for a semester, and I’d also had my first firefight there. Oddly enough, except for the monthly run, I hadn’t visited it since then, even though I had been thinking about doing it ever since Hell Semester had ended. I had this idea in my head that going back to the part where the most deadly part of the battle had taken place, a crater probably formed in WWII when the US took the island from the Japanese, I would instantly feel better.

Walking into the forest, I began to feel a sense of unease. On the path, I noticed that something was… off. Along the path where years of vehicles and Hell Semester students had worn, the trees had begun to blossom. Most of the other non-coniferous trees farther back in the forest had almost finished losing their leaves, but these seemed to think it was spring despite the colder weather.

I didn’t need to think about what this meant for too long. The Architect had been through here. I considered my options. The newly awakened sensible side of me pointed out that pursuing whatever this was would be a bad idea. The slightly less sensible side was inclined to believe that I wouldn’t have a prayer of sleeping until The Architect was dead. This less sensible side also pointed out that The Architect had come after me first, with no warning or provocation. My sensible side countered that the weapons I had on me (my SIG and my Berretta, plus a switchblade) would probably be of little use on someone (or something) that could make space and time his or her bitch.

I was busy considering whether to walk away like nothing was wrong, or going down there and ending The Architect when Mubashir appeared ahead of me from a side trail. I sighed inwardly. That’s twice I’d seen him involved in Architect-related weirdness and zero times I had seen signs of The Architect without seeing Moob. Odds were looking better and better that Bai was right and he was The Architect.

Upon seeing me, Mubashir froze. As he did, I noticed he was clutching what seemed to be a prayer rug. Finally, after a long pause, I said, as casually as possible, “Hey Moob, what’cha doing out here?”

“I… I was just finishing up some prayers,” he said after another pause. I noticed that he was slightly flustered. “There’s a bunker up that path that keeps the rain out. Really peaceful.” When I didn’t say anything to that, he added, “I also have to get away from Salim.”

“Won’t he notice that you’re gone?” I asked.

“Not on Saturdays,” Mubashir said. “He’s usually trying to get other Muslims to join.” He cocked his head. “By the way, what are you doing here?”

“I was trying to see if I could find the crater,” I said. Seeing Mubashir’s confused look, I said, “It’s where most of the Hell Semester battle happened. There’s more than a few ghosts there that I need to burry.”

Mubashir nodded. It was hard to see at that distance, especially in the rain and mist. “I know a few things about ghosts,” he said. “Would you like me to walk with you? Make sure you don’t step on a mine or unexploded shell?”

“Sure,” I said. The mines and shelling were mostly around the Hell Semester side of the island, but the forest separated that area from the main campus. The crater in question had most likely been from a battleship. The likelihood some other shells had landed in the area was pretty high. I didn’t want to risk stepping on a shell big enough to make that kind of crater that had been waiting for me since the early forties. “You can’t be too careful.”

We crossed the distance between us, then began our journey. After a few minutes, Mubashir remarked, “You know, I don’t really ever think of that last day of Hell Semester as a battle. More like a final where I just sat around doing nothing.”

“It definitely was a battle,” I said. “Especially around the crater.” After another pause I said, “I know it’s probably nothing compared to what you went through, but that kind of fucked me up. That and the rest of Hell Semester.”

“About that,” Moob said, “I’m sorry about what happened after Fight Night.” I nodded. He was referring to an incident where Salim had ambushed me. It ended up with most of Salim’s crew dead and me sharing an ambulance ride with a girl Eliza had really messed up. It wasn’t a fun time.

We walked along for a little while more. “You know,” Mubashir said, “for a time I alternated between not believing in Allah and cursing Him, saying I could do a better job. A few months after being kidnapped by Al-Qaeda, in fact.”

“What changed?” I asked.

Mubashir obviously wished I had asked something else, but he answered anyway. “In difficult situations some people find God, some people lose him. In even rarer situations God finds them.”

There was more silence. During that time, we kept heading deeper and deeper into the forest. We had left behind the strange blossoming trees and were in a segment that I wasn’t exactly familiar with. However, I could feel we were getting close. Finally Mubashir asked, “So, how many of them were there?”

“A captive we had claimed around a hundred and fifty,” I said, “and a captured cPhone with a ‘Find My Friends’ feature led me to believe he was correct.”

“That many?” Mubashir asked. “Against eight of you?”

“The vast majority were worse than useless,” I said. “They panicked way too easily, they couldn’t tell a safety from a magazine catch, and until the very end, their leadership ranged from nonexistent to worse than useless.”

“I’ve had experience with those kinds of leaders,” Mubashir said. “It’s almost funny when they meet on the field of battle and match ‘wits.’ Except so many are dying and each side had an obvious way to end it without that many people dying.” He sighed. “Of course, the war I’m fighting is completely unnecessary and one of the groups I’m fighting with is becoming less relevant every day. I believe the English language meme is dumpster fire?”

I shrugged. “Haven’t looked at the net much lately so I couldn’t…” I paused. We had just come into a clearing. A very familiar one.

“What is it?” Mubashir asked.

“This is where we had our second battle,” I said. I hurried out into the middle of it. “I came through the bushes…” I scanned around, then pointed to the spot, “…over there. Standing right here was an enemy patrol. We took them out…” I could almost see the last one. He had been playing dead as The Monk and I had advanced on him. Then his phone had rung and he had popped up. We had shot him. I remembered how he and his companions’ blood had soaked the snow. We had then looted the corpses after making sure all of them were dead. I somehow felt both ashamed and proud.

“Are you ok?” Mubashir asked.

“Moving on!” I said with forced cheer. Mubashir looked at me strangely, but he followed me down memory lane. “You know,” I continued in a non-sequitur, “It was really cold. And blizzarding. Visibility was complete shit and everyone’s teeth were chattering. Of course, you were back at camp, experiencing the same weather so…”

“I don’t remember any of it,” Mubashir said. “It was honestly just another day off for me once I set the tent up. Salim was ranting, and those of us who were still left were listening to him vent.”

“What does he talk about?” I ask.

“His family and how they got murdered by an American drone,” Mubashir said. “Just once, I want to point out my family was most likely killed or enslaved by Al Qaeda, but that would blow my cover.” He kicked a tree. “I work for UNIX!” He kicked it again. “I work for the CIA!” He kicked a final time. “I work for Al Qaeda! I work for three of the worst entities in the world, three entities who lie and abuse my brother and sister Arabs daily! Who abuse me daily! Why am I cowardly enough to work for them?”

“I don’t think you’re a coward,” I said. “Honestly, I just don’t think you have a choice.”

“Apart from suicide,” Mubashir said.

“If you’ve found God again,” I said, continuing on my journey, “and if he’s saying the same thing to you as he is to me, that’s definitely a sin.”

Mubashir began following me. “Maybe our gods aren’t so different after all,” he said with a bit of a bitter laugh. “Which would make sense, since they’re the same.”

Eventually, we saw it. The memories of the events there caused me to stagger a bit, and for a minute, I could smell the fire and smoke. I could hear the gunfire and screams of the dying. It was so real I almost thought I was back there. Next to me, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mubashir look at me in concern.

I took a few deep breaths, then said, “I’m ok.”

“To be fair,” Mubashir said, trying to sound casual, “You’re doing a lot better than I would if I went back to my village.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Anyway, if you look around, I think you can still see some signs of the battle. For instance, those shrubs along the sides of this path… I think you can still see how they got burned.”

After that, I led Mubashir up the path to the crater, keeping up a running commentary about everything that happened. How Doc, The Monk, John and I had to fight our way to the crater where Eric, MC Disaster, Ray-Gun and Cross had holed up. How the enemy had sent a recon team down what we had termed the funnel, and how The Monk and I had killed most of them. How the next attack was the rest of them, all coming down the funnel, and how we had massacred them with our guns and incendiary grenades, literally dismembering some and burning a few others alive. How we had decided (stupidly) to leave the crater and were ambushed by the few remaining enemies. How they had shot me, The Monk and Ray-Gun and could possibly have killed all of us if a relief force led by Eliza hadn’t shown up.

From the top of the crater, I stared at the now-swampy wasteland where I had been shot. “Hey Moob,” I asked, “Is it weird that I’m kind of proud at what I did here?”

“By ‘weird,’” Mubashir asked, “do you mean wrong?”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “I mean, I feel guilty. A lot of them died in pretty horrible ways. Sometimes because I pulled a trigger or threw a grenade.”

“I don’t know,” Mubashir said. “There is only one person who can answer that, and he hasn’t talked to me.” He smiled with a mixture of hope and cynicism. “I can say I hope God can forgive you, because I’ve been doing similar things and worse for much longer.”

“Well, I’ll hope he forgives you as well,” I said. “Mostly because I like your logic.” We laughed. It was genuine laughter. When we were done, I looked down at the bottom of the crater. “Someday,” I said, “I’d like to come back here with some other veterans, or some people like you who weren’t here but who’d understand what this is like. Cook some hot dogs or burgers, pop something to drown our sorrows, and just talk.”

“It can’t be with me,” Mubashir said. “I have to go back, and if they see me with you…”

I nodded. “Of course. Go on ahead.” I looked out to where I had been hit in the leg with shrapnel from a 40mm rifle grenade. “I’ve still got some reminiscing to do.” With only a short goodbye, Mubashir left. I watched him leave, then began to wonder how many more craters and North Koreas I would have.

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Track 17: Fix Yo Hustle

Looking back on it, I can’t believe I ever forgot about Timothy. I wouldn’t be reminded of his existence until nearly the second week in October. Sunday afternoon after lunch and the study group, the board of Olympus Incorporated had welcomed Professor Krieger to discuss the first order of business: the sale of the pistols and ammo to the mystery group.

“Our friends,” Krieger began, “find that your pistols live up to all your claims so far. They admit to over-ordering the pistols, but are offering around five hundred dollars per additional ten thousand rounds of ammunition.”

“Any critiques?” I asked, trying to ignore that May looked disgusted with Krieger and Andy seemed like he was about to vomit.

“These weapons,” Krieger said, “are somewhat controversial. But the objective fact is they can penetrate any material you could reasonably expect and its bleedin’ uncle. It’s also an objective fact that the little bugger’s very noisy, and if you aren’t wearing some armor, you might spend a good few minutes before realizing you’ve been shot.”

With this comment, Nari asked, “Do our honorable buyers know enough to aim for the center mass? Or do they prefer to aim for the legs and shoulders?”

Kreiger laughed. “Oh, they know where to aim, missy. Sometimes, though, you can’t always hit the heart or brain. In those situations, a few very small bullets won’t do as much damage as a lot of heavy bullets. That being said, apparently a third of the people who use it are in love with it.” Nari smirked in satisfaction. “The other two-thirds want it to be lighter, have less recoil, have a higher rate of fire, or some combination of the three.”

Nari gave Krieger a glower that almost matched May’s. “Do they realize that the only way to control recoil for that gun is to make it abnormally heavy? Even if I added porting, switching from steel to polymer or seltsametall would make it kick too much.”

Krieger shrugged. “Just giving you their words, girlie.” He considered this. “You know, a platform with a bigger form factor could potentially…”

“Allow for an effective counter-balancing system, which in turn would allow for controllable, rapid semi and full-auto fire,” Nari said, rolling her eyes. “We know. We’ve thought it through, much better than any of your friends.”

“They’d like to hear your musings,” Krieger said.

Nari, suddenly cautious, looked hesitantly to May, Andy and me. Andy and May shrugged. I guess it was my turn. “Between company politics, finances, and just plain old engineering,” I said, “we feel we should keep our speculations academic for the moment. That’s not to say it can’t happen in the near future, but it’s unlikely.”

As I said this, I tried to not even think of the two guns in the case we had spent the morning testing in the forest. If you didn’t have anything to hold to scale, you could be forgiven for thinking it was an M-4/M-16 with an MP-5A3-style telescoping buttstock clone at first. That was because the receiver was designed to accommodate an M-4 barrel shroud. Then, you’d notice it took its magazines through a pistol grip and the ambidextrous charging handles were very similar to a SCAR or AK. If you held it up to an UMP-45, you’d also notice that without the barrel, this gun was more compact, but with the barrel it was slightly longer.

Internally, it was radically altered from all its progenitors to accommodate a revolutionary counter-balancing spring made up of a shelved university project called BounceCore (a material with a high compression strength that could be reduced by running a current through it.) The act of firing the gun pushed back the barrel and the BounceCore spring instead of the entire gun as well as pushing the six-and-a-half millimeter bullet forwards. The only problem with BounceCore was that in order to have it stand up to the kinetic and thermal energy our ammunition created when it fired, we had to make it way too thick to be put in a pistol. Still, that allowed us to make the rest of this SMG out of Seltsametall and synthetics.

It was deadly, efficient and easy to use. Nari and I were both rightly proud. In short, it was everything May (and me) did not want falling into the wrong hands, which also made it the kind of thing Nari wanted to put in boxes of breakfast cereal along with her biography.

We called it the Ballpeen, and it was beautiful.

Krieger, not seeming to suspect my lie, said, “I’m sorry to hear that, lads and lassies. I’ll give you until Saturday to come to a decision. In the meantime, I’m going to get some sleep. I’ve got Hell Semester pukes to deal with for the next five days.”

With that, he got up and exited the borrowed conference room. In the split second after Krieger had exited from view and before the door began to close, I saw my waiter from the Veranda, Timmy, sitting at the conference room across the hall, consulting his laptop. Before I could really register, the door was blocking my view again. Oddly enough, he appeared to be wearing business formal attire. Even the stuffiest of the business majors wore business casual unless they needed to present.

We waited for a few seconds to make sure Krieger had really left. When we were sure he was gone, Nari asked, “So, why did we not sell him the Ballpeen?”

“Because,” May said through gritted teeth, pulling out a manila folder, “I’m not sure they are who they say they are.”

“And even if they are,” Andy said grimly, “they’re still pretty dang shady.”

Before either of them could elaborate, the door to our conference room burst open. “I’ll say,” Timmy said, striding in like he owned the place, much to our surprise. “I mean, they’re definitely stiffing you.” He paused, and flashed what he obviously thought was a charming smile. “I can help with that.”

“…Who the hell are you?” Andy asked.

“This,” I said, “is Timothy, I believe. You’re a business major, right?”

“Technically,” he said, “my name is Cheung Tao, but my English name’s Timothy Cheung.” He sat leaned down, looking oddly serious despite his hipster glasses and stupid widow’s peak. “But that’s not important. What’s important is how I can help you.”

“And how could you help us?” May asked.

“First of all,” Timothy said, getting up, “not only is this room bugged, but it’s also not soundproofed.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the room he had previously been inhabiting. “Mine is. Plus I know how to baffle the bugs.” He got up. “If you would follow me…”

Andy, May, Nari and I consulted each other silently for a moment. Finally I said, “What the hell? Let’s humor him.”

“Ok,” May said.

We all got up. After we filed into the room, Timothy sealed the door. I noticed that his laptop, a MacBook of some sort, was plugged into the TV via an HDMI cable. The window shades were mostly drawn, except for a small sliver where what appeared to be a wireless speaker rested against the window.

“The cool thing about music,” Timothy said smugly, taking a gold-plated iPhone out of his pocket, “is that not only can it cut off room mics when played at the correct volume, not only can it disrupt laser mics if you put the speaker up to the window, but you can also impress your client.” He then pressed a button on his phone. “Aw yeah, it’s that dope shizzle, my nizzles!”

For one brief, shining moment, I thought I was listening to Under Pressure. Then Vanilla Ice started rapping. May, our hip-hop head, looked like she was in physical pain as soon as she heard the first few bars.

Sensing that Vanilla Ice hadn’t gotten him the points he had desired, Timothy said, “…I also have some Fetty Wap, Rick Ross and Limp Bizkit if they would be better.”

“How about if I put on some music?” May asked as tactfully as she could possibly could.

Once May had begun cleansing her palate with some Tupac, she asked, “So, Mr. Cheung, what proposal do you have for us?”

“Also,” I asked, “how did you find out about us?”

“Please,” he said, “Call me Timmy.” He turned to me. “Well, Mr. Jacobs, I discovered this company through you, when you were talking with your lovely lady about how many units you shipped.” He gave me a wink to let me know where he thought I had shipped that night and where it was delivered. I just stared at him. He continued on. “To be fair, you didn’t mention units of what, but I was intrigued. Then, at a recent study group for Black Market Econ at the Vulture Capitalist, I managed to get a bit more info out of Jennifer Kagemoto. Don’t worry, she didn’t say your name, just that she’d discovered someone working on some really cool guns. To be fair to her, she also had twice as many shots of tequila as you did of bourbon.”

I recognized the name Vulture Capitalist. Basically, it was The Drunken Mercenary for Business Majors, except instead of using sub-par booze, it kept outsiders away via exotic menu options and exorbitant prices. Any study group there would turn into a drunken revel.

“Are you offering us security?” I asked. If he was, I’d have to take it. I’d obviously messed up if he was here.

Apparently, I had accidentally implied I’d been insulted because Timothy quickly backpedaled. “No, no, no!” he said. “I just have some suggestions. For instance, I did some research. The closest analogue to your ammo I could find is .357 SIG. Would that be fair?”

“In terms of velocity and penetration,” Nari said, a little insulted, “.357 SIG is completely inferior.”

“Then why are you selling it for less?” Timothy asked. He pressed a button on his phone and the title Profitability in Weapon Deals appeared on the TV. He pressed another button and he went to a slide with two pie graphs. “These,” he said, “are what I estimate what the price of .357 SIG goes to. Since we’re selling wholesale, we’re going to look at the one on the right, which is cost to the end user per thousand rounds.”

He tapped on the screen. “As you can see, the actual cost of making and assembling the bullet is only about twenty cents per bullet. That means, of the six hundred and seventy-five dollars the consumer spends on, only two hundred dollars is actually spent on making the thing.” He paused for effect, but then moved from the red slice representing the cost to make the bullet, tapping the other slices. “Of course, the manufacturer spends money on marketing, design, benefits, royalties, most of which doesn’t concern you, since you only have shareholders at this point, or any need to market.” Finally, he got to the big green slice. “But this… this is the profit, or at least the gross profit. Now, can I ask… if the rules changed tomorrow, and you had to pay for materials yourself, how much would bullets cost?”

Andy spoke up instantly. “Fifty cents. If I budget in case of the machine breaking, possibly sixty. Most of that is due to the fact we’re in the middle of nowhere and we’re not producing a huge amount.”

“So,” Timothy said, “if you were to have to pay for materials, six thousand of the five hundred dollars you make would go to production costs. That seems a little off to me.” He shrugged. “Then again, if you’re running a charity…”

“If it’s a charity,” May said, finally opening the manila folder, “we need to review our cases. A few days after we shipped our first order, a Cartel middle-management guy living right on the US/Mexican border left his wife and kids for work. As soon as he closed the door, two men walked up and opened fire. A total of five rounds were fired, all of which passed through the man and the heavy oak door. Not only did he die almost instantly, but his wife, eight-month-old infant and fifteen-year-old son are dead. There are five other incidents I believe our gun was used in that ended in civilian casualties.”

“What was the goal?” Timothy asked. “Not your client’s, but yours.”

“Immediate goal?” I said. “FBI’s having a contest. We want in, and Krieger told us they could get us in.”

“Ok,” he said, “No shipments until we get proof they are who they say they are. We also need to find Krieger’s angle…”

“What about yours?” I asked.

“Simple,” Timothy said. “You guys are inventors who need a business guy to sell your products, I’m a business guy who’s looking for a job. Also, apart from the pistol, are you making any other things?”

“Originally,” May said, suppressing her bitterness, “this was supposed to be about just selling medical supplies and automated production.” She brightened up a bit. “Still, Power Sludge and my surgical glue have been approved by the FDA, so I’m going Washington in a few weeks. Andy’s going to be at the factory.”

“So we’re…” Timothy began, then realized that we hadn’t voted him in yet, ““…I mean, you’re also doing medicine and manufacturing. Cool. That’s something we can put sales of weapons towards.”

As May pondered this, Timothy asked, “Can I see the products you discussed?”

I put the case on the table. “You can look,” I said, “but you can’t touch, and you can’t ask how they work. Deal?”

“Sure,” Timothy said with a shrug. I opened the case. Inside was the second generation of the Uilon Mangchi and the two prototype versions of the Ballpeen.

“What’s that on the bottom of the machinegun at the top?” Timothy asked.

“It’s a collapsible foregrip, light and laser,” I said, resisting the urge to correct him that it was actually an SMG. “If you pull the trigger on the grip, you can switch between several settings.”

Timothy looked at the guns for a moment, smiling to himself. Finally, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe your products are Hollywood-ready.”


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Track 15: Shot Through the Heart

Apparently, Eliza and I weren’t the only ones to see that vision. According to an email I read, a lot of other people on the island had seen the same thing and the TV in Sun Tzu had a report about psionically sensitive people seeing strange visions all over the world. I was worried, but I realized that there was nothing about it I could do. Instead, I spent all my spare time trying to do rough sketches of the next weapons.

Finally, it was time to go to the study group/weapons test. Saturday morning, I actually had managed to sleep until seven. Considering when I usually got to bed and how little time I actually spent sleeping, it was unsurprising that I was usually tired. I considered going back to sleep, then considered the nightmares I was likely to get. After those lovely thoughts, I began the process of getting ready without disturbing John.

After I got in, I noticed that he had gotten dressed while I was doing the same, plus showering and brushing teeth. “Did I wake you up?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “not really. Besides, I can sleep through all sorts of crap.”

“Also,” I said, “sorry about the other night with Eliza. I…”

“Hey,” John said, “it was much better than what you walked into when Bai was here. Besides, she kind of lives on the floor above us.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” John said. “She rooms with Oro, but it’s functionally a single. Don’t ask where Oro goes, Bai never asks and I’d bet anything she wouldn’t tell if she knew.” He gestured at the door with his toothbrush. “Anyway…”

“Certainly,” I said.

Eventually he came back. For once, we actually talked a bit, mostly about classes. It was weird. Ever since we had gotten back to the island, we had stopped talking to each other. It was weird.

I thought back to what Eliza had said about Charlotte blaming herself for whatever happened in England over vacation. “John,” I asked, “do you blame me for what happened in Korea?”

“Which part?” he asked.

“Uh… the part where you got shot.”

“Ah.” John said nervously. “That part.”

There was a long, awkward pause. Finally, he said, “I don’t really blame anyone for what happened. I mean, I could blame you, but you never really forced me or even ordered me into that particular situation. I could blame the guy who actually shot me, but he was completely in the right to do so. I could blame myself, but honestly those things happen.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said.

“Is there a reason you asked?” John asked.

“It’s just…” I said, “…things have been weird between us since then, you know?”

“Yeah.” John said. There was another pause, then he blurted out, “It’s just… you’d do it again. Meanwhile, I’m convinced the next time I do something like this, I could die. I will die.”

“You don’t have to continue doing this,” I said. “You’re not on a tour of duty, and there’s plenty of other people who can do this.”

John cocked his head. “You really believe that?” he asked skeptically. “That we can sit back?” I hesitated. John sighed. “I thought so. Fuck me, right?”

Suddenly, our phones beeped. We both reached for them. It was Nari, sending out a mass text. Apparently, she was out in front of Sun Tzu. “You want to head out?” I asked John.

“Sure,” he said. “I kind of want to see how this gun you’ve been working on handles.”

“Actually,” I said as I unlocked my gun safe, “these ones are models that Nari’s improved.” I reached in and pulled out the prototype. “This is the one I made.” I held it for a moment, then put it in my pocket after making sure it was on safe. “Might be useful to give people an idea of how much its improved.”

“I call first dibs,” John said.

We walked down to Sun Tzu together, meeting Cross, Bai, Oro, and Eric’s crew on the way down. Ray-Gun, in particular was particularly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Cross, however, was quite grumpy.

“Listen, Ray,” he said as we got out of the elevator, “I know you like high-tech stuff, but I haven’t even had breakfast yet. Or my morning coffee. I need you to get the fuck outta my face with your tobacco and your chipperness for five seconds.”

“I’m sorry you are such a sad individual,” Ray-Gun said, waving his still-burning cigarette around expressively, “but I cannot control my excitement, and I have no wish to.”

“You are lucky,” MC Disaster said quietly. “At least they aren’t laser or plasma-based. Then he’d never shut up.”

The banter continued like this for the few seconds it took us to leave our dorm and see Nari, May, Sunny, and Andy waiting by the entrance to Sun Tzu. Sunny and Andy looked drained. May looked like her usual hyper self, albeit somewhat annoyed. Nari, meanwhile, looked like she had stolen the energy from the other three. She was also holding an ABS case and a cloth bag.

“Good,” Nari said upon seeing us, “you have made it.” She then turned around and beckoned imperiously. “Come on,” she said. “The range is only open for a limited time.”

Sunny, noticing that some of us (Cross) weren’t exactly thrilled to be ordered around by a ten-year-old, said, “Sorry. She’s a little…”

Eric interrupted by asking Nari, “So, my Queen,” he asked jovially, “what do you wish of your court today?” He had moved up besides Nari, and as he said this he made a parody of an obsequious bow.

“Don’t encourage her,” Sunny said, shooting Eric a venomous expression.

Nari, suddenly realizing what she had done, cringed slightly. “Sorry…” she said.

“Besides,” Andy said jokingly, “if anyone’s queen, it’d be May.”

Normally, May would either jokingly accept the title or cede it out of embarrassment, but today, she just made a noncommittal noise of recognition. Everyone else continued on as normal, but Andy and I noticed. I’m pretty sure that Nari noticed as well, but Eric was keeping her busy.

Eventually, Nari lead us into the room she had reserved. First, she opened the case to reveal six of the new pistols with two magazines each. These pistols were identified by stickers on the grip and barrel made by a label maker. As Andy had said, their aesthetic had been radically changed to a hybrid of the Berreta M-92’s long, double-cut slide and Desert Eagle’s triangular shape. The only bits of my original design that remained were the FNP-style sight mounts and the barrel that extended beyond the slide. Then she opened the bag to reveal that it had two plastic bags.

While she was doing that, I said, “Hey, Nari, John wanted to test out the first prototype, so I brought it along.”

“Did you bring magazines for it?” she asked. “I had to rework the magazines slightly. It wasn’t that big of a change.”

“Here you go,” I said, handing her the pistol and a spare mag.

She set the weapon on top of the newer versions. “Attention, please!” she called out. When she had everyone’s attention, she said, “In the case are prototypes of the Uilon Mangchi. Most of them are the second prototype, but one is the first. Do not get their magazines mixed up! Generation one has a different magazine than generation two, and I need to collect data on how they work.” When she saw that everyone had gotten this information, she continued, “In the white plastic bag, I have put tungsten-core rounds. In the other, I have bullets made out of a new compound taken from Grenzefrontier troops called seltsamemetall. Please make a note of which type of ammo you use and which gun you’re using on the sheets on the station, as well as any malfunctions. Mr. Jacobs, would you please instruct our guests in the operation of these weapons?”

Luckily, the controls on the first generation were the same as the ones on the second, which made things much quicker. The problem was that as soon as I had walked everyone through the process of loading, unloading and putting the Uilon Mangchi on safety, there was a knock on the door.

I opened it. There, smiling brightly, was Eliza. Behind her were Jennifer and Charlotte. “Sorry I’m late!” Eliza said. “What’d I miss?”

“Well…” I said, somewhat sheepishly, “kinda everything.”

Nari looked over my shoulder. “I know the mutant,” she said, “sorry… I mean Lupine. But I do not remember meeting the other two.”

“Charlotte is Eliza’s adopted sister,” I said. “Jennifer is… Jennifer.” Jennifer laughed in amusement at this. It was the kind of laugh that wasn’t supposed to remind you she was a supervillain, but did anyway. “They’re both in the Rogue program.”

I’m not sure why I mentioned that last bit, but I could feel Nari light up behind me. “Excellent!” she said. “I think we could use a law enforcement or enthusiast perspective on our weaponry.”

“I’m a little more than…” Jennifer began.

At the same time, May said, “I would prefer to avoid the civ…”

“Details, details,” Nari said. I turned around to see her literally wave off my concern. “Brief them on the details of operation and data gathering, Mr. Jacobs. After the first round, join us for the shareholders meeting.”

After running through everything again, I sat back and watched the first wave go. Everyone with the second generation prototype got the hang of it pretty quick. John, who was using the first generation, got the operation down pretty quick. After he finished his forty rounds (by which time all the other shooters had finished theirs,) he said, “If the fucking thing didn’t keep jamming or feel like I was firing a magnum, I’d say it was really good. It has some really nice penetration on it, which would have come in handy in Korea.” I nodded, remembering the abnormally strong armor of the Dragon’s Teeth. Hell, I had even had trouble penetrating the South Korean SWAT officer’s hard body armor with pistol rounds. 6.5mm seemed to solve that last problem pretty handily, though.

The Monk spoke up. “The newer version has greatly improved on the recoil, but I still do not like it. I also dislike the trigger. It seems a little heavy.” He paused to consider. “Then again, the recoil is comparable to your SIG, so I suppose someone might like it.” As he spoke, I noticed Nari was scribbling in a notebook.

MC Disaster spoke up again, making it a personal record for speaking in a day. “My thoughts are very similar. I quite like the power, I can tolerate the recoil, and I dislike the trigger pull. However, to determine if I would carry it into battle, I’d have to spend a lot more range time with it.” He considered the gun for a moment. Finally, he asked, “Does it really have to look this hideous?”

“Personally,” Jen said, “I quite adore the looks. Also the clip…”

“Magazine,” several people said at once, including Nari.

“Whatever,” Jen said, rolling her eyes. “I like it. I just want to empty it a bit faster. It would also be nice to do it one-handed. That means a slight recoil reduction and a decreased trigger pull.”

“Me too,” Cross said. “But don’t reduce the trigger pull too much, ok?”

“It isn’t a revolver or a bolt-action,” Oro said. “That’s probably why I don’t like it. It is very accurate for an automatic.”

After a few minutes of somewhat contradictory advice and several near-arguments from the first seven shooters, Nari finally said, “I think that’s enough for now.” She grabbed me by the arm. “Please, continue shooting. Meanwhile, the board will have a meeting.”

“Speaking of that,” Bai asked, “what is your company called?”

“Olympus,” May said. “Olympus Incorporated.”

When we got out, I said, “Pretty cool name. Did you come up with it, May?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m also thinking we should name the divisions differently. You and Nari get the weaponry division, Mars Arsenal. You’ll also have a split between thirty percent of the profits of Mars Arsenal. How does that sound?”

“Pretty good,” I said. “What’s your division called?”

“I’ve got Hephaestus Industrial Solutions,” Andy said. “May has Caduceus Medical. Speaking of Caduceus, wanna tell them the good news?”

“Sure,” May said. “Basically, the changes to the student invention policy means I can get a grant from The President. Plus, his contacts are railroading Power Sludge and my surgical glue through the FDA. If things go as planned, Andy and I might be leaving the school in a few weeks. We even a site picked out in Massachusetts.”

“You don’t sound very happy,” Nari said.

May sighed. “There’s an FBI contest. Apparently, .40 S&W isn’t cutting it for dealing with Parahumans and criminals armed with advanced tech.”

“And?” Nari asked. “Isn’t that not a good thing?”

May took a deep breath. “Weapons entered in this kind of competition tend to sell very well with civilians…”

“Which is what we want, correct?” Nari said. “These weapons are deliberately designed to defeat The Dragon’s Teeth. If they invade, we want as many people armed with these as possible.”

May exploded. “And what do you think people are going to be doing with them in the meantime?” Nari flinched, but May continued.  “Yeah, sure, we’ll get rich, selling weapons to people like Cross and Jennifer as well as the cops, then selling medical supplies when they’re done killing each other. But people will still be killing each other before The Dragon’s Teeth show up. I don’t want to be responsible for that!”

Suddenly, May stopped, realizing that Nari was starting to tear up. “I’m sorry,” May said hurriedly, “I didn’t mean…”

“The Dragon’s Teeth,” Nari said, straining to speak through her tears, “are massacring everyone in my country. I don’t want to be responsible for them to do the same to another country. Whatever Cross and Jennifer and people like them are capable of is a rounding error compared to what I’ve seen from those monsters.” She then began to walk off. “I’m going to the bathroom. I’ll be back.”

“Well,” May said after Nari was out of sight, “not only am I a hypocrite, I guess I’m also a complete bitch.” She began to walk away. “I’m going back to my dorm. When Nari comes back, tell her I’m sorry.”


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Happy Birthday To Nari

It was the second month of my first semester an NIU. There were so many things to get used to. For instance, in the classes I had in Chinese, I would write my name as normal. However, in the classes taught in English, I would have to write my name as Nari Lee.

Sunny, my guardian and one of the people who had rescued me from North Korea, said that she still wasn’t used to the Western way. Eventually, I asked her, “Sunny, why are there no classes in Korean?” The reason I had asked this was because my first Cultural Communication essay (which was an English language class) had come back riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. The essay for my Chinese class was in similar shape.

Sunny looked up from the papers she was grading. “Well,” she said, “we teach on a tiny island. While it is true we have to teach many students who speak a… staggering variety of language, we just can’t support every single spoken language. So we have classes in what are deemed to be the four major languages.”

I sighed. “At least I get to work on my language skills.”

“See,” Sunny said, “there’s a bright side to almost everything. By the way, you said your birthday is next week?” I nodded. “Want to do anything for that?”

“Not really,” I said. “My family never gave parties, they were too poor and my old school did not really go out of its way to promote individualism. Besides, I would like to test my guitar.” I had been working on a guitar and amp combination using various blueprints I had found online. It should have been ready by the time of my birthday.

“Let me rephrase that,” Sunny said with a note of amusement. “Is May going to hang out with you? Because I think she might like to.”

“Is it an American thing or a May thing?” I asked.

“She hasn’t been very vocal about it,” Sunny said, “but she would like it. If you don’t want to make a big deal out of it, you might want to ask.”

I did ask May over, but I didn’t tell her it was my birthday until we were down in the basement. We were sipping on some ginger tea and eating some kimbap Sunny had cooked for us and I was just getting ready to turn on my amp when I told May, “So, today is actually my birthday.”

“Really?” May asked. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It seemed the kind of thing you would make a big deal of,” I said honestly. As I spoke, I fiddled with the knobs on the amp. To be on the safe side, I turned the volume and gain down. “My other nine birthdays weren’t really that big.”

“Totally get it,” May said. “I understand not wanting to attract attention.”

I looked at her, trying to hide my incredulity. May’s blond hair was possibly not a natural blond and the purple highlights on the tips of her pigtails were even less convincing. To top that off, there were her mismatched eyes, one green, one blue. “I see,” I said. “How long ago was this?”

“I was a little younger then you when I decided to stop giving a shit,” May admitted. “Of course, the reason was that I had realized that whatever I did, they’d keep coming after me. Plus, the stakes weren’t as high as yours were.”

I thought back to how some of my fellow classmates at my previous school had been removed at odd times with no explanation. “The stakes may have been higher for me,” I said, “but I’ll always wonder if the attitude was similar.”

There was a pause. I’m not sure what May was thinking, but I know I was considering what had happened (and what was happening) to all the people I left behind in North Korea. I then flipped the switch of the amplifier.

Despite the gain and the volume being low, we were assaulted by the sound of massive feedback. As May covered her ears, I desperately tried to turn the volume and gain down. “Sorry! Sorry!” I said, as I fiddled with the knobs.

“Shut it off! Shut it off!” May yelled. Seeing as both knobs were at zero, I decided to follow her advice. The harsh screeching stopped.

“You know,” I said, after our hearing began returning, “I think the problem might be a software problem.” That was the problem with using a completely solid state amplifier. The arduinos might have been easier to get than tubes, but my programming skills were not exactly up to the task.

“So,” May asked, “how long will it take to fix it?”

“Quite a while,” I said, an unintended note of glee in my voice. “The programing is probably going to be the trickiest bit, then I’ll probably have to replace the speaker.”

“Sounds like you’ll be having fun,” May said, sounding amused.

“Well,” I said, going over my code in my head, “I would hardly be doing something like this in my free time if I didn’t like it.” I turned to face her. “Surely that’s how you feel about medicine? After all, you lived your entire first semester off one of your creations.”

“Kind of…” May said. “Yeah, I love the actual creation part of my work sometimes. But… the more I think about it, the more I want my work to change the world for the better, y’know?”

“I don’t really think that,” I said. “Honestly, if I worry about how my inventions are used, I’ll eventually go insane.”

“In other words,” May said, seemingly quoting someone, “you only make sure your rockets go up, and you don’t care where they come down.”

“I guess…” I said. “But it’s better than being bored.” I was suddenly angry. “None of the projects I’m supposed to be doing here are interesting.” I gestured at the amp. “This won’t last the rest of the month. Then what am I going to make? I’ve already made a dozen different radios.  In fact, if I hadn’t discovered Metal music, I’d be done making audio equipment.”

“You… you’re bored.” May seemed shocked by this statement.

“I’m surprised that more people aren’t,” I said. “I’m tired of being limited.” I picked up my guitar. It was a triple-humbucker Jazzmaster clone. “Well, at least this works. Want to hear the opening rift to ‘Enter Sandman?’”

As I played, I reflected on the opportunity I had come across recently. With musical instruments, I had no idea what made a good one. However, one of the other people who had rescued me seemed to want to design a gun. Based on what I knew of him, I could guess his requirements would be demanding. And maybe I would stop being bored.


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Track 10: Nari’s Got a Gun

The next few weeks were pretty insane. The pistol and bullet designs were actually the easiest parts. The bullets almost needed no tweaking. The pistol bullets depended on an organic compound not of this Earth, but the rifle bullets were filled with an easily recreated liquid. Besides, despite being extremely quiet, the pistol bullets were somewhat useless.

The gun was basically an Arsenal Firearms Strike One which I had monkeyed around with a bit. The first thing (apart from re-chambering it for the new six-and-a-half millimeter ammo I was designing,) I had changed was some slight changes to the slide so it would be able to carry FN FP sights, as well as some cosmetic detailing. The second thing I had changed was to modify the slide and magazine so that the slide only cycled all the way back if the weapon was empty or the safety was on. I also tightened the tolerances of the tolerances on the exterior and completely sealed the firing mechanism off from the outside.  This, I thought, might make it usable underwater. Also, the small size of the round allowed me to have a somewhat shorter twenty-round magazine, instead of the Strike One’s long seventeen-round magazine. Finally, seeing as I had limited resources, and I wasn’t sure how powerful the round would be, I decided to make it all metal instead of polymer-frame.

Still, it took a lot to get all the components organized. Krieger was a little curious about why I needed the various materials, but he relented eventually. At some point, I would have to tell him, if only to remain on his good side.

Also, due to my paranoia, I did as much of the production in the dorm as I possibly could. John didn’t say anything, mostly because he spent most of his time out of the dorm, but on when he walked in on me wearing a surgical mask and pouring the nasty-smelling propellant into some bullets, he just walked out.

I just sighed and continued pouring. At some point, I’d have to reassure him that I wasn’t making meth or anything, just explosives. I’d also have to figure out how to clean it out of vinyl floors. It wouldn’t be fair to the next person to use the room, drop a cigarette, and cause an explosion. In the meantime, I’d just have to make do with quickly blotting it off the floor.

The assembly was also kind of a pain. For those of you who don’t know, you can’t just 3D-print an entire gun. To do the bullets in only two printings, I needed to use the most advanced printer on campus. The main part of the gun I had to do in chunks, with each individual component (springs, slabs of metal, hinges) being needed to be assembled by hand. That was probably the hardest part.

Eventually, at a point so late on Friday night it was technically Saturday morning, I texted Nari. All I said in the text was, “It’s finished.”

Nari instantly texted me back. Or maybe it wasn’t instant. I’m not sure. I was so tired my sense of time was completely fucked up. Anyway, the text read, “Meet me at 11:30. Sun Tzu B005.” I recognized that room. It was where I had taken a pistol course last year.

I set my timer and fell face-first onto the bed. As usual, the little sleep I could get was filled with nightmares. Thankfully, I can barely remember any of them, because I think they were worse than they’d ever been that night.

Inevitably, right when I had finally gotten to sleep, the alarm I had set on my phone rang. John groaned. “I. Just. Got. To. Sleep!” he grumbled.

“Sorry, sorry,” I said, quickly silencing it. I then stared at him. “Where were you last night?” I asked.

John mumbled something, then went back to sleep. I sighed. He must have been doing his own project as well. I’d ask him when he actually was awake. In the meantime, I’d have to get my clothes on, take a shower, and eat breakfast. I’d also need to put the pistol somewhere safe. I wasn’t sure it could fit in either of my holsters, and I didn’t want to leave either of my carry guns. I decided that I could stick it in the case I used for my G-3K.

After showering in the communal bathroom and getting everything packed, I checked out the window. I sighed. It was raining so heavily I’d need my raincoat. The rainy season was now in full force. As I ran through the rain, I felt a twinge of sympathy for the fresh meat going through Hell Semester.

Still, I was very happy to actually eat some food inside. It was a Korean-style breakfast that day (in other words, the same thing they have every meal.) Not wanting to have something as spicy as kimchi for my first meal, I decided I’d just have some rice and tea. I finished off my rice quickly, then walked down into the basement for my meeting with Nari.

However, when I got to the elevator, I saw that Nari and May were waiting at the elevator, May holding a white paper bag. Emblazoned across the bag were the words “Sir Galahad’s,” and the logo of a knight. I recognized it as the logo of a coffee shop across the street from The Drunken Mercenary. “Hey guys,” I said. “Is May in on this now?”

May rolled her eyes. “This nutbag talked Andy and me into producing your death machines. I was asking her to help me tutor the study club and she somehow knew that you’d invested into my company…”

“You told me, remember?” Nari said, somewhat petulantly. I noticed that she had a t-shirt for some heavy metal band to go with her jeans. It was a far cry from what she wore when I had brought her back from Korea.

“I did?” May asked blankly.

“You did,” Nari said. “Remember when you were trying to teach me to appreciate Immortal Technique and we somehow discovered Metallica instead?”

“Oh yeah,” May said. “Anyway, Nari… expressed doubts about your ability to produce guns. Also, I’m apparently here to assess.”

“I… I really don’t know,” I admitted. “I have to admit, I don’t think I would be able to continue the rate of production.” As I finished that thought, the elevator dinged and we walked in.

“What is the rate of production?” Nari asked.

“Well, ripping off the design was two and a half days of not sleeping,” I said, “and assembling the thing was another.”

May, upon hearing this, inspected me. Nari, meanwhile, clapped her hands together and said, “Really? That is impressively productive. If you were a North Korean, you would definitely be considered for the Choseon Roryeok Hunchang. I believe it translates as the Order of Korean Labor.”

“He does look like he’s been doing some labor,” May commented acerbically. “Normally, I don’t encourage over-caffeinating, but when you finish that tea, I got some hot chocolate for you.”

Mentally translating that as “Dude, you look like shit,” I said, “Thank you. Did Eliza tell you how much I like hot chocolate?”

“Yes,” May said. “By the way, first study group is today. If you want to get some sleep…”

“Actually, I kind of have a lot of work,” I said. “I can’t…”

“Let me rephrase,” May said as the elevator dinged, her expression morphing into her signature death glare. “After showing us your murder toy, you will go back to your dorm room and you will go to sleep. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“Good,” May said.

“Hey,” Nari said impatiently, “the room isn’t being kept all day! Onwards!” We followed her as she half skipped, half ran down the hall. When we were halfway down the hall, Nari asked, “So, Nathan, what is this weapon called?”

“I haven’t thought of a name,” I admitted.

Nari just shrugged. “So? We’ll just call it the P-1.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “It needs a name. I know guns are usually just random characters, but I want to have it actually have a name, if only for marketing purposes.”

“Marketing purposes?” Nari asked.

“You know,” I said, “something that attracts attention, something that lets people know instantly what kind of firearm it is.”

Nari nodded as she unlocked the door with her cPhone. “Interesting idea,” she said. “I will have to consider it.”

We then entered the room. Down the range, I noticed several green human-shaped objects supported by wire, several of which were wearing bullet-proof vests. There was also what seemed to be a portable wall with standard target silhouettes painted on. “What are those?” I asked.

“The green target dummies are designed to mimic a human when shot,” Nari said. “May is here to assess the damage.” As she spoke, she went to a console by the far wall and began punching in commands.

“Joy.” May said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

Ignoring her, Nari said, “The dummies are wearing a variety of common armor types to test penetration. The wall targets also double as a pressure pad. If we want raw data, we can record how hard the bullet hits the wall. The room” she gestured to show that she was talking about the entire room, “also has cameras at various points that will help record the firing. I suspect that you, Mr. Jacobs, as the chief military consultant, will find this useful.” She then plugged in an external hard drive. “Anyway, let’s see what you have made.”

I opened up the case. Nari was suitably impressed. May was indifferent. I then began explaining everything about the gun I could think of, from the design I had kind of stolen to the features I tried to implement. “Now,” I said, “I haven’t really designed a gun before. I’d be cautious in case I fucked it up and it explodes.”

Nari, not really paying attention to that last part, picked up the gun. “Why is being heavy a bad thing?” she asked. “I would think that people would want heavier weapons to minimize recoil.”

“People can live with recoil,” I said, “but when you’re trekking deep into enemy territory on foot, you want to cut as much weight. The individual soldiers will thank any manufacturer who shaves weight.” I eyed her hesitantly. She was holding the gun in both hands so that she could see the slide. It was pointed in a safe direction (in this case meaning not at her, May, or me) “Maybe you should put that back…”

Nari nodded. “Good to know,” she said. “Next question, where is the safety?”

I told her where the safety and magazine catch were, but before I could add, “…but you should probably wait,” Nari was already striding towards the firing line.

“Shooter ready,” Nari said, “start recording.”

“Understood,” a computerized voice said. “Recording commencing.”

“Nari,” May said, “Maybe you should listen to Nate and take it slow.”

Her words were punctuated by the loudest pistol shot I had ever heard up to that point. I had been watching Nari from the rear as she had walked to the firing line. Her stance when she had fired had been pretty bad. She had also fired mid-step. This was one of the reasons she fell back. The other was that the recoil had caused the gun to fly back and hit her in the face.

Luckily, the floor was padded to reduce noise. It also probably broke her fall a bit. May and I both ran over to her. As I did, I noticed that one of the dummies had a hole in its bullet-resistant vest and was shaking violently. There were also a few strange bumps in the plate.

When I got to where Nari was, I kicked the gun away from her in case she decided to fire it again. May, meanwhile, had gotten out a pen light. “Shit,” she said. “Her eyes are unevenly dilated. And she’s smiling. She might be concussed.”

I looked down at Nari. May was right. She was grinning like a loon. She must have been punch-drunk from being hit in the face with a high-powered handgun.

“Uilon mangchi…” she said, sounding somewhat drunk.

“Yeah,” May said. “It’s a concussion, she’s speaking nonsense.”

Nari shook her head. “It isn’t nonsense, you Capitalist toady. It’s Korean. Uilon mangchi means righteous hammer.” She smiled even wider and looked at us both. “It’s also what we’re calling this gun.”

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Track 8: Future So Bright

Things quickly settled back into a routine. Like an idiot, I had decided to get as many of the tough classes I would absolutely hate out of the way this semester as I possibly could and not go insane. That was physics, chemistry, and calculus. Anything more, and I’d go insane. I also had English II, because it was required, and over the summer, I had managed to get Computer Aided Design I and a course called Weaponsmithing: AKs and ARs included as well.

The reason for the last two was because I had an extracurricular activity I needed to do. Those Dragon’s Teeth were already way too far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of tech. The only problem was that their basic infantry weapons sucked. So, in my spare time, I was going to design a weapon that would be competitive with the Pilum assault rifle, maybe throw in a few other kinds as well.

The problem with this idea was time. Not only was I taking six really hard classes, but I was also tending bar four nights a week and had decided to do my radio show with Andy again. Functionally, that only left the weekend to design, prototype and test a range of modern weaponry with new ammunition designed to compete with something that was twenty years ahead of every weapon made on Earth. And the person making it would never have designed a gun before.

Needless to say, I hadn’t really thought this through enough. The one thing I did do right was decide to make the ammo first. That mean figuring out what the hell was in the bullets I had recovered. That meant getting them to May.

I met her the Sunday before class started. It was supper (which gave me ample time to recover from my hangover,) and we met at Sun Tzu. “Any particular reason you wanted to meet here?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, setting her stir-fry down at the table we had chosen. “I wanted an excuse not to eat in a place where nutritionists go to fight.”

“Sounds fun,” I said.

May shot me a withering look. “It’s not,” she said. “It feels like the menu changes every day, usually either to some completely artificial meal to entirely fruits and vegetables with no regard for the other three food groups.” She pointed to her stir-fry and glass of milk. “I need protein, I need grain, and I need sweets. This place has that in healthy portions. That’s not to say artificial ingredients, fruits and veggies are inherently evil. A girl just needs a little more than that. I also need the other food groups and food that tastes good. I admit, when I made Power Sludge, I didn’t take any of that into account, but I see that more as proving my point seeing as how miserable it made my life. But there were worse things I could do, y’know? I could have forced my new wonder diet on everyone because I’m perfect and can do no wrong just like that dumbass Ulrich! Or I could be like Tiffany Parker and throw a fit every time something other than joyless new-age crap… excuse me, ‘organize protests over Paleo-uncompliant meals.’ God, Paleolithic diets are the most…”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, sensing that May was going to go into one of her signature rants, “but I was wondering if you could help me analyze these.” I held a box. Inside was the bullets I had collected in North Korea and a note explaining how to open them and what I wanted them tested for.

“I guess,” May said. From the look of it, she didn’t seem exactly thrilled by the idea of helping me make a weapon.

“It’s going to a good cause,” I said.

“Yeah,” May said, “and so was the Gatling gun. Why do you need to fight… them? Because it sounds like more lives could be saved just by surrendering.”

I paused, considering my words carefully. “When I was… away,” I finally said, “I saw only one civilian. There was also only one surviving soldier, but his mind was so damaged by chemical weapons, I’m not sure if he counts as a survivor. Apart from soldiers on both sides and that one civilian, there were no signs of survivors.”

May gravely considered this horrifying news for a few seconds, then said, “Fine. But this does not end up on the civilian market, got me?” As she said this, she grudgingly put the package in her purse.

“I’ll delay it as long as I can,” I said.

We ate in silence, pursuing small talk for a bit. Suddenly, we were interrupted. “Hello, my friends!” boomed a voice with a strange accent. I looked up. There, standing next to our table, carrying their food, were two men I knew only as Eric the Entertainer and The Monk.

“Eric! Monk!” I said happily. “How’re you two doing? And where are the rest of you guys?” Eric and The Monk were two African child soldiers I had met in Hell Semester. They were part of a group of child soldiers that had some vague adventures. Eric was the leader and heavy machinegunner. The Monk was designated marksman and the calmest human being I know. MC Disaster was a reclusive demolitions expert who rarely spoke. Ray-Gun was an excitable sci-fi nerd who usually spotted for The Monk. Doc was the somewhat crotchety doctor.

It would be very hard not to look at any of them and not guess their history. Between their accents and skin tone (The Monk had the lightest, with dark brown skin) it would be very easy to tell they were from Africa. Their height and build suggested constant malnutrition, with only The Monk and Ray-Gun being around the height of an average American. However, their most striking shared feature, at least to me, was their shared predatory poise. These were people who had been killing since before I could read.

They had also really helped me during those first few months of school. For that, John and I both owed all five of them a hell of a lot.

“We,” Eric said, sitting down, “are doing fine. Also, we’re… enjoying hanging out with different people on occasion.”

“Ray-Gun is watching every single episode of Ultimate Spider-Man,” The Monk said, “MC Disaster is listening to those CDs May loaned me,” he turned to May to quickly add, “by the way, thank you for those. I particularly liked Fearless. If you want them back…”

“If like it,” May said, “you can keep all of them, except for K.O.D. I got that signed by Krizz Kaliko and Tech N9ne.”

“What about that one signed by Justin…”

“Keep it!” May shouted. “Please! Dad got me so many embarrassing CDs. I wanted K.O.D, he’d get me My World 2.0. I ask for The Rose That Grew From Concrete, he’d get me Up All Night. Ugh! It was so annoying!”

“Where’s Doc?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” May said. “Thanks for reminding me, Nate. Where is Doc? I heard he did pretty well over summer semester in a few of his med classes.”

“Cross got in this morning,” The Monk said. Michael “Cross” Castellan was a son of a New York mafia hitman. He also was the kind of guy you never would suspect of being gay… until he got drunk and started feeling up dudes and talking about sleeping with Triad bosses. “He and Doc are having… quality time.”

“By ‘quality time’” Eric said, “we mean butt fucking.” From the way he said it, I could tell he was trying to gross May out.

It flew right over May’s head. “Speaking of long-distance relationships,” she said to me, “how are you and Eliza doing?”

“We actually haven’t talked since yesterday,” I said. “She said something about having to cancel her meeting with me today.”

“I see,” May said with a disturbing flatness.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “She’s just busy, that’s all.” May, meanwhile, just nodded.

The rest of the meal was fine enough. I left early, smartly realizing that this night would be the last chance I had at a full night’s sleep and freedom to do whatever. May was able to talk me into doing a study group that she was setting up, something to do with wanting to help “idiot sophomores who’d bitten off more than they could chew.” Despite getting the impression that she had just had the idea a few seconds ago, I accepted.

That turned out to be a very good idea. As soon as class started, I quickly realized my mistake. Everything was hard.

The CAD class, for instance, assumed you had used something similar before. There were three things that saved me that first class. The first is that I had spent the portion of Sunday I hadn’t been hungover playing around with the CAD software and reading the book. The second was that I had touched on CAD programs as part of the Maynard Public Schools curriculum and my misguided quest to become a game designer. The third thing was that Nari was sitting right beside me. By the end of the class, we were all able to create a plastic, spring-loaded… thing.

The most interesting thing about that first class (not that it was boring, quite the opposite in fact,) was an announcement at the end. “Now being in this program allows you certain privileges,” she said. “During this course, and upon passing it, you will have a set ration of plastic and cardboard for 3D-printing at your discretion.”

Plastic and cardboard. Damn. I couldn’t make a gun out that. I was so busy worrying about how I’d get some actual materials that I almost missed what the instructor said next.

“If you feel like you need better materials,” the instructor continued on, “you may ask your student advisor to sign off on the materials.” I smiled. Suddenly, I had a way to make a gun. It all depended on Kreiger.

Physics, chemistry, calculus and English were also shaping up to be hellish. The bright side was that the chemistry classroom had a similar deal: you could access a variety of compounds and elements, and more if your advisor authorized it.

However, the best class was the armory class. As soon as I got in, the teacher said the most beautiful words I had ever heard all week. “Hey y’all,” he said, “I’m Don Haliburton. Now, this is the first day and we’ve got plenty of time, so I’m gonna take it slow for a few sessions.”

It was Friday. The only thing any of us had been hearing was “You guys! The semester only has twelve weeks! We need to hurry!” I swear, as soon as we heard this, the entire room had to suppress a cheer. I turned to look at Doc and Cross. All three of us had huge grins on our faces.

When Professor Haliburton was done with the lecture and had us start work on stripping some weapons, Nari said, “Honestly, I am somewhat sad. I would like to have been challenged.”

“Wait,” Cross said, his tanned face wrinkling in confusion, “aren’t you like, ten, or something?”

“You’re off by about a week, sir,” Nari said, a blank expression on her face. “My birthday is on Saturday.” From what I knew about her, that look and tone of voice indicated either contempt or annoyance, tinged with a fear that contempt or annoyance would get her disappeared. It wasn’t an unreasonable fear, either back in North Korea or at NIU.

“But you’re in college…” Cross said, somewhat stunned.

“You’re in college,” Nari said, “and yet somehow you got a C in Algebra last semester.” She suddenly went white with horror, realizing she had just insulted a Hell Semester graduate who had just finished re-assembling an AK.

“Oooooh,” Doc said. “She got you, man!”

“Shut up,” Cross said. “I got honors in high school!”

“This isn’t high school,” Doc said in a sing-song voice.

“Oh yeah,” Cross asked. “What’d you get in English again, genius?”

“Cross got a C! Cross got a C! C is for Cross, that’s good enough for he!”

“Oh yeah?” Cross asked, elbowing Doc (unadvisable, seeing as Doc was holding an M-16A4.) “This is from the guy who got a D in English and a D up the butt!”

“Guys,” I said, “not in front of the mini-person, ok?”

“Are…” Nari asked, now even more concerned, “…Are they… homosexuals?”

“Nah,” Cross said, “we just like sucking each other’s dicks.”

“Hey! Lovebirds!” Professor Haliburton shouted from across the room. “Am I gonna have to put you two in separate pre-schools?” Professor Haliburton was an older man, with a bit of a paunch, but he had been in Special Forces. Plus, he was faculty. You had to be an idiot to disrespect him.

“No, sir,” Cross and Doc said in unison. Professor Haliburton glared at them for a few seconds. After what felt like an eternity, he moved on.

A few seconds later, Cross said, “So, Doc’s group is going to watch the run-down of the Fresh Meat. We’re also inviting a few others, too. You want to come, Nate?”

“Can’t make it,” I said, looking up from my sketch of an AK-107 counterbalancing mechanism. “I’m going to be doing overtime at The Drunken Mercenary. Apparently, anything to do with Hell Semester, soccer…”

“You mean football,” Doc corrected.

“…and the last few days of finals are the busiest days for the bar and all hands have to be on deck.” I shook my head. “Sorry guys.”

After class was finally over, I was one of the last to leave. I had gotten the actual assignment done extremely quickly and had spent the rest of class examining the counterbalance mechanisms of the AK-107 and AEK-971. From what I understood, their design was both more effective and simpler than the Pilum. All I’d have to do was copy the design, and I’d have a better weapon. The future was looking bright, if only for my designs.

I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice that Nari had been watching me take notes the entire class.


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