Track 20: We Have Big Gun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything else?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Track 15: Cabin Fever

We got settled in pretty quickly, along with a lot of the bikers. We promptly sealed off a series of rooms all to ourselves. They seemed to be the section for people who actually lived in the farmhouse. Outside, we could hear our hosts making themselves comfortable. There were only three bedrooms, one master bedroom and two others. Jen got the biggest one, the Murakamis got one of the smaller ones, and Mayu got the last room. John and I crashed on one of the two couches in the common room area.

When I say “crashed,” that implies we slept and didn’t get up until morning. Instead, we ended up waking up every time we heard someone come our way. We had several tense exchanges where some person would knock on the door, only capable of speaking in Japanese and John would have to explain that we wanted to keep the room off-limits or that Jen was sleeping. Meanwhile, I’d be pointing the SIG at where the voice was coming from. Eventually, we just decided not to sleep.

Around 11 AM, Jen staggered out of bed in her pajamas (a modest white sports tank top and pink Dora the Explorer fuzzy pants,) mask dangling from her fingers in one hand, a pack of grits in the other. “Ugh,” she said, “that was a long night.” She turned and looked at us. “Why the hell aren’t you sleeping?” We explained. At that point, we were so tired, I forget who spoke and what we said. Jen just looked at us like we were hopeless. “Get some sleep,” she said. “You need it.”

Mayu walked in just as Jen finished pouring water into a tea kettle. The suite we had taken over had no windows in the common room. When Mayu had walked in, she had opened the door and showed us the light coming through the crack in her curtain. I suddenly realized how much I missed windows.

“Kagemoto-san!” Mayu said with a bow. “May I make a humble request of you?”

“I guess,” Jen said, turning on the stove. “Depends on the request, of course.”

“I need some paper and something to draw with,” Mayu said. Her manner was much more nervous than usual. I wondered if she actually did need it. “If it would not be too much trouble, of course.”

“It shouldn’t be,” Jen said. “Anyone have any other requests?”

“Yes,” I said. “John and I need more ammo and clothes that are clean.”

Jen took a sniff. “Yes,” she said, making a comically disgusted face. “You really do. Anyway, what kind of ammunition do you need?”

“Nine millimeter Parabellum and three-fifty-seven SIG for me,” I said, “and probably five-fifty-six NATO and ten millimeter auto for John.”

Jen sighed and lightly face-palmed when she heard this. “You couldn’t have brought anything they’d actually have? You know, like a twenty-two or thirty-eight?”

“Hey,” I said, “the original plan was that we’d be surrounded by a hundred Royal Marines and have an actual supply chain. Plus, I literally only had two hours to prepare.”

“And to be fair,” John said, “the assault rifle and the Uzi knock-off were salvaged here.”

“The Defenders of Fuji,” Jen said, “have an insane number of government contacts and are very creative. Getting military-grade weapons is probably the most benign thing they can do.” She shook her head. “Anyway, I’ll see what I can do. The pistol ammunition is doable. I think. You should probably give up on the rifle ammunition.”

“May I have a weapon?” Mayu asked. Everyone in the room immediately stared at her thoughtfully. “If the Defenders find us,” Mayu added reasonably, “you would need me able to fight.”

Jen nodded, then went to one of the pieces of luggage that had been scattered around the room. She opened a secret compartment and took out a Heckler & Koch VP-70 with a pink slide and matching silencer. “Here,” she said, holding the gun by the barrel. “We took a few spare guns from our armory. This one looked interesting.” Mayu took the gun and pulled the slide to check to see if it was loaded. “Can you work a gun?” Jen asked.

Mayu gave one of her huge eye-closing smiles. “Yep!” she said. “Not this one, but the Defenders sent us a lot of firearms to use.” To prove it, she ejected the magazine and locked the slide back, ejecting the round in the chamber. “You probably shouldn’t store it loaded,” she said after she put the mag in a pocket. “It’s unsafe and bad for the magazine.” She then sat down at the nearby table and began disassembling the weapon, a happy smile on her face.

“Well, have fun with that,” Jen said. “I’m going to have breakfast, then I’m going to put in our requests.” She held up the box of grits and shook it. “Anyone else want instant grits?” John and I raised our hands. Mayu was too busy happily examining the VP-70’s trigger group which she had just removed.

True to her word, after she had eaten her bowl of grits, she grabbed her mask and headed out the door. I was unsure how she was going to intimidate people while wearing fuzzy pink pants with cartoon characters, but I’m sure if anyone could do it, it would be Jen. Before she did, she gave Mayu a couple spare magazines for her new gun.

Jen came back in a short while. In that time, Mayu had stripped and reassembled the VP-70 several times, each time faster than the last. “So,” Jen said, “the clothes can be obtained quickly. In fact, they’re here.” To punctuate that sentence, she threw a couple garbage bags onto the floor. “However, the ammunition and any escape will take longer.”

“What about the drawing supplies?” Mayu asked, suddenly looking desperate. “When should those arrive?”

Jen, barely suppressing an eye roll, said, “That shouldn’t be a problem.”

“But I need them!” Mayu said desperately.

“In between juggling appeasing newly-armed biker gangs and escaping a secret society trying to kill us,” Jen said, sarcasm dripping from her voice, “I promise to do my best to indulge your artistic tendencies. Deal?”

Mayu’s face froze in her desperate desire, apart from the occasional eye twitch. Finally, her face rearranged itself into its usual non-threatening smile. “Of course, Kagemoto-san.”

The next few days devolved into a pattern. At night, John and I would keep watch, despite everyone but Mayu suggesting it was unnecessary. Then, at around seven or nine in the morning, everyone would wake up and we’d have something for breakfast. Jen would go out and ask the bikers about the various favors we had requested. When she’d come back from the meeting, Mayu would ask her about the art supplies. This pattern would repeat after lunch and dinner.

On the second day, we got the ammunition and some bento boxes just before dinner. Mayu took exception to that. “How… how are these incompetents able to get ammunition before they can get art supplies?” she asked, a temple throbbing.

“I don’t know,” Jen said, obviously losing her patience. “Maybe, just maybe, it could be because they have much more fucking important things to do with their time!”

Mayu, ignoring Jen, loaded a paper plate with her portion of food, muttering, “Munona, munona, munona,” over and over under her breath. She then stormed off into her room still muttering. A few minutes later, we heard a muffled scream of rage. In response, Jen sighed in aggravation.

After a few minutes, I said, “Hey, Jen, can you ask if there is a nearby British consulate?”

“Actually,” Jen said, “there’s one in the city we just left.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re not thinking of going back in there, are you?”

“How bad is it?” I asked.

“They locked the city down,” Jen said. “Municipal and Prefecture police and the JSDF have set up checkpoints throughout the city.”

“Ok, where’s the next nearest one?”

“You do realize,” Jen said, “that the Defenders of Fuji may have given the police your face?”

“I do,” I said. “I also realize that Mayu’s our ticket out of here and if you two spend too much more time here together, you’ll end up killing her out of sheer annoyance.”

“That is a risk I’m willing to take,” Jen said. “I don’t want to get arrested here. Even without the Defender’s help, I doubt I’d get less than life plus unnecessary additions.”

“If I may,” Hirosama said hesitantly, “the longer we stay here, the more likely our enemies will find us, and I doubt our hosts have the connections to arrange transport.”

“And,” Andrew spoke up, “I might be reading between the lines here, but your boy there might not want these bike guys knowing he’s working with the British.”

“Vice-versa,” John said. “At this point, I don’t give a fuck about our employers. Literally, the only reason,” he smashed his hand down on the table on the word only, “we are even in this Goddamn mess is that someone didn’t think this through.”

Jen blanched at that. I suddenly realized that Charlotte wasn’t the only one who was making rash decisions. “Speaking of our employer,” I said, “what do you think she’s doing?”

“No fucking clue,” John said. “But I kind of wonder how much of a force they can project.”

“Enough,” Jen said. “I was her roommate for two semesters. She’s clever.” She got up. “Still, I think we should give our hosts some time to do their thing. That seems safest.”

That effectively ended the conversation… at least until the very next day. The day went on as usual until Jen got back from her post-lunch visit. She walked in wearing her mask and a skirt suit, carrying a bag that seemed to be from some kind of art store.

“Well,” she said with a mixture of relief and forced cheer, closing the door with the heel of her shoe and raising her mask, “I finally have it. Here’s your art supplies, Mayu.” She set the bag on the table and then went over to the cabinet where she had stashed some food. She extracted a bottle of painkillers and a paper cup and downed two.

Meanwhile, Mayu eagerly began searching through the art supplies. First, there was a pad of paper that she seemed to appreciate. Then there were the colored pencils. There were two boxes, each with different colors. She scattered them out onto the table and began testing every brown on the first sheet of paper. As she did, her ecstatic expression began to become more and more forced. Then it began to become panicked rage.

“You know,” Jen said, walking over towards her, “when someone gets you a gift, it’s polite to thank them.”

“Three hundred and fifty.” Mayu’s voice, normally high and bubbly, was now a soft whisper. She had frozen, staring at the mass of colored pencils and the unsatisfactory scribbles she had made.

“Excuse me?” Jen asked, her voice conversational but with a dangerous edge.

“Three hundred and fifty colors,” Mayu said, visibly and vocally shaking, “and not one of them is the shade I want, you stupid reprobate.”

“I don’t think…” Jen began, her voice dangerous.

“BAKAAAAA!” Mayu screamed, launching herself at Jen, colored pencil in hand. She let out a burst of Japanese just as the colored pencil stabbed into Jen’s temple. As she ranted, she stabbed Jen over and over again, Jen trying to protect her face and neck with her arm. I didn’t catch most of it, but after several more stabs, it turned into “BAKABAKABA…”

Just as suddenly as she had launched herself at Jen, Andrew and Hirosama pulled Mayu off and flung her onto the floor. I didn’t have the best view of Mayu, but I saw her look of shock to have gone from stabbing someone with a colored pencil to being on the floor to looking down the barrel of a Glock and a Desert Eagle.

“Give us a reason why I shouldn’t pull the fucking trigger, bitch?” Andrew snarled.

“Because I said not to.” Jen’s voice, though at a reasonable volume, rang out through the room. Somehow, despite her two-inch heels and Mayu’s best efforts, Jen had remained standing. She was, however, bleeding from her face, side of her head, and arm. Andrew and Hirosama hesitantly began to raise their weapons. “Did I say to let her go?” Jen asked. Her voice was steady and conversational, yet dangerous. Andrew and Hirosama then turned their guns back on Mayu. Once Jen saw her orders were being carried out, she paused, visibly considering her options. As she did so, nobody even dared breathe.

Finally, she said, “Kaori, set a timer to fifteen minutes. Don’t start it until I say. Nobody. Else. Move.” Not even waiting to see if her orders had been carried out, she walked into the suite’s shared bathroom, still bleeding.

If any of us thought she was going to be tending to her wounds, those thoughts were challenged by the sounds of metallic clanking. After a while, she emerged carrying the hollow metal rod where the shower curtain was mounted. “Get her standing,” she said to Andrew and Hirosama. They did.

When Mayu was on her feet, Jen calmly said, “You just made your next fifteen minutes quite problematic.” Then she slammed the curtain rod down onto Mayu’s shoulder. Mayu collapsed with a cry of pain, and Jen tossed the now bent rod away and began stomping and kicking her.

I started forwards, but Lydia aimed her Glock and pointed it right at my face. I put my hands up and shut up. John obviously got the message as well.

Jen didn’t stop robotically beating Mayu until Kaori’s phone beeped. When it did, she stepped back and said, “Get up.” Mayu staggered to her feet. Her lip was split, her nose was bleeding and bruises were forming all along her unnaturally pale skin. “Let me be clear,” Jen continued, “you are here because I allow it. No other reason. You will treat me with respect, or the next time I won’t stop. Do you understand me?”

Mayu nodded. Jen then gave Mayu a brutal backhand across the cheek. “Answer me when I’m talking to you.”

Mayu kept her face turned for a few minutes, then turned back to Jen.  “Hai, Kagemoto-sama. I understand.” She then bowed.

“Good,” Jen said. “Now get the fuck out of my sight.” After Mayu scurried back inside her room, Jen, without turning to face us, said, “Nate, how do you feel about paying a visit to your friends?”

“Whenever you want,” I said.

“How about now?”

“Now works,” I said. “Does it work for you, John?”

“Yep,” John said, “I’m free.” With that, we left as quickly as possible.

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Track 14: Leave Your Lights On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everyone I love dies,” Jen said.

“It’s ok,” I said. “It’s ok…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Track of the Day

Track 12: I Shot the Sherriff

After we called Jen’s people, we traveled in silence for quite a bit. Then, suddenly, John said, “Shit… Jen, you left that shotgun! Were you wearing gloves?” He shook his head. “No, you weren’t. They have your prints.”

Jen laughed. “Could you explain to me what’s so funny?” I asked her.

“Do you know how hard it is to get prints off a gun?” Jen asked, a note of amusement in her voice.

John and I looked at each other and shrugged.  “I have no idea,” I admitted.

“Honestly, neither do I,” Jen said, “but I have a team of lawyers that can convince a jury that it would be downright criminal to put an angel like me in jail because of that.”

“Are these lawyers certified to practice in Japan?” I asked. In the mirror, I saw Jen open her mouth to reply, then close it and consider something in what seemed to be a growing panic. “I see. I guess I should call Charlotte.” I pulled out my cPhone and dialed her number.

I was halfway through dialing when I said, “Wait, for all we know Charlotte and Eliza are still at Kage Fortress. I can’t ask her for a pickup if a bunch of Defenders are sitting around, waiting for us to slip up.”

“What.” Jen said, obviously dumfounded.

“Don’t ask,” John said, “it’s so stupid, I can’t even comprehend it.”

“Me neither,” I said. “I can just hope that…” My phone rang, cutting me off.

“Well,” Jen said, “that sounds like that problem has been taken care of, at least.”

“That isn’t Charlotte’s number,” I said. John and Jen both opened their mouths. “It isn’t Eliza’s either. It is a cPhone, though.” I put it to my head. “Who is this?” I asked.

“Jacobs-san,” Nakashima said with strained politeness, “you have been very busy, haven’t you?”

“I would apologize,” I said, “but you kind of took a friend of mine prisoner. The only reason I’m sorry is that if I knew you’d taken her…”

I heard Nakashima sigh on the other end. “Don’t… lie. We aren’t idiots. We know you helped my distant relative escape.”

“Before I throw my phone out the window,” I said, “can I ask your first name? It’s going to get confusing.”

“My name is Hiro Nakashima,” he said, “and I would like to point out that you are not the only student of NIU on this island. You cannot win. But you can…”

As he had spoken, I had been lowering the window. When it was done, I tossed the phone out of the car. For a few seconds, the car was silent. Then John’s phone began to ring. He took it out of his pocket and handed it to me. I checked the ID. It was Hiro’s number, so I tossed it out the window as well. As soon as it left the car, however, a third phone started to ring.

It took me a few minutes to find it, but eventually I found the third phone, buried in one of the glove compartments. I tossed it out the window. I only glanced at the caller ID briefly, but I didn’t need to in order to know it was from Hiro. “Guy doesn’t quit,” I said. “Jen…”

“Already ditched it,” she said. “Who was that?”

“Apparently,” I said, “while Mayu was in her little bubble with the other heralds, her ancestors went about life normally. End result is we’ve got another Nakashima who’s good with computers. Like, scarily good. Possibly also an NIU CompSci student.” I paused.  “Anyone have any devices that send or receive EM transmissions? Because we need to dump them yesterday.”

“Well,” Jen said, “There’s my tracker…”

“I heard its subdermal,” I said conversationally. “Does that mean…?”

“That I’ll need a knife and some bandages?” I could hear the grimace in Jen’s voice. “Yes. Yes it does.” I opened my backpack and reached for some bandages. I then handed them to Jen, along with my knife. “Thanks,” she said sarcastically as she took them. “Excellent bedside manners, nurse.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I just don’t someone to track us.” I turned to John. “How close are we?”

“About five minutes out,” John said.

“Ok, circle the block until Jen gets her transmitter out. I don’t want the Defenders crashing our RV.”

John nodded and began circling. I scanned the street, trying to ignore the somewhat disturbing grunts of pain from Jen in the back seat. This went on for a few laps. Occasionally, I’d look back and see Jen working on her forearm with the knife. Blood was getting everywhere, and it was starting to look like Jen had murdered someone in the backseat. Eventually, she started wrapping her bandage.

“Ok,” she said, “I’m bandaged up and I can throw this shit out the window.”

“That may be a bad idea,” John said, pointing at the rearview mirror. I looked at it. There, in the rearview mirror, was a cop car, its lights flashing. “What should I do?” John asked nervously.

“Pull over,” I said. “He may be going somewhere else.”

He did. I made sure to seal the bag with the Type 89, M-3, and the PM-9, just in case. For similar reasons, I put my SIG between my seat and the door so I could draw it easily. Then I began to pray that the car would pass us. It didn’t. Instead it parked and a police officer got out.

There was a tense moment as the officer walked towards us. During the time, I tried to see if there was another officer in the car. Eventually, I said, “I don’t think he’s got a partner, but I’m not sure.” Jen nodded.

Eventually, the cop stood out on the driver’s side. “Konbanwa,” he said, bowing. I knew that meant “good evening.” Then he said something else that I couldn’t make out, but I could guess translated as “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Or it could have been “Why is your backseat drenched in blood?” It could’ve been either one, really. Then he must have seen our faces, because he must have asked, “Anata wa nihongo o hanasemasu ka?” That, at least I knew, translated to “Do you speak Japanese?”

John responded in Japanese. I assume at least part of it translated to “I do, but my friends don’t.”

The officer nodded. “Ah. Excuse me. There is explosion. We are stopping everyone to find suspect. Pureasu step out of the vehicle.”

I came to a decision in an instant. I pulled out my SIG and shot him twice in the chest and once in the head. “GET US OUT OF HERE!” I yelled at John.

“What the hell, Nate?” John asked. He stepped on the gas, so I didn’t really complain.

“Do you really think he would have left us go?” I said as the car’s sudden acceleration threw me back into the seat. “And do you really think they wouldn’t have put two and two together and figured out we were responsible for that mess we left?”

“Honestly,” Jen said, “I was afraid you’d ask to keep him.” She shuddered. “God, can you imagine having two prisoners while every cop in the fucking country is looking for us? That’s the definition of a nightmare.”

John’s only response was to grunt mutinously. I sighed. If we were going to get through this situation, I was going to have to make amends with John. “Listen,” I said, “I admit, there were better ways of handling that.” Behind me, Jen laughed incredulously. “Or at least more moral ways. But the longer I spent thinking about them, the less likely they would be to work. Then we’d be in prison, and our only hope would be Charlotte.”

“You know,” Jen said, “I actually doubt Charlotte would have let us rot in prison. Eliza…”

“Has no control over the situation anymore,” John said. “And Charlotte only thinks she does.” He sighed. “You were right, Nate.” He smacked the dash. “God damn it!”

“Hey,” I said, “think of it this way: you’re the only one who hasn’t killed a cop.”

“So I’m an accessory?”

“Well, yes,” Jen said. “The good news is that this is a rather nice city. The cops shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Anyway, there’s the parking lot.”

John pulled into the parking lot. We got out and looked around. “Ah,” Jen said, looking up, “they’re here.” I looked too. There, towering above all the other cars, was the Escalade Jen had brought with us. Making it even more conspicuous was the fact that all the cars in the lot were cheap, tiny commuters and compacts that fit comfortably into their tiny spaces. The Escalade, meanwhile, was not only scraping against the sides of its space, but its rear also hung out over the edge, blocking the road a bit. Apart from the Maybach, it was the only car I had seen in the area over $50,000. Including the Maybach, it was the only one I had seen with windows tinted that dark. In fact, the windows were so dark I wasn’t even sure it was legal.

“Very inconspicuous,” I said as Lydia and Andrew got out of the car. In unison, they both smashed the doors into the cars on either side of them. “We blend in perfectly.” As the door opened, I could hear muffled grunts from inside.

“I told you,” the woman with the burned face said as she exited the vehicle, “you should have gone with something else.” On the other side, her hard-faced comrade also exited the vehicle.

“Hey,” Andrew said, “If we had just brought a sedan could we have done this?” With what seemed to be practiced fluidity, Andrew and Lydia opened the Escalade’s hatch.

I stopped and stared. Inside was a man with a bag over his head and his arms bound behind his back. Apart from his bag and some boxer shorts, he was completely naked. Judging by the smear of blood on the bag, he had been trying to open the hatch by banging his head against it. Or someone had punched him in the face repeatedly. The way the night had been going, I wouldn’t rule either possibility out. From the rear seat, Mayu was watching both us and the prisoner with her standard smile.

“Well now,” John said, a note of venom in his voice, “this, uh, complicates things, doesn’t it?”

 

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Track of the Day

Track 9: We Have Words

We didn’t speak until we had left the keep, with me leading the group out of the castle and into the woods. Well, everyone except for Charlotte. For the entire time we walked, she was making comments on my rudeness. Finally, I turned around and said, “Do you realize how badly you fucked up?”

“Excuse me?” Charlotte said.

“You walked into a room with someone who’s clearly nuts,” I began, “with powerful people probably listening to every word you say, and told them a hell of a lot more than you should.”

“But…” Charlotte protested.

I cut her off. “Did I make a few mistakes? Yes.” I dropped my voice to a whisper in the vain hope that if someone were to eavesdrop on this conversation and the one we had with Mayu they’d miss crucial information. “That little picture of hers took me off guard…” then I resumed in a normal (ok, louder than normal) voice, “but what the hell were you thinking telling everyone you knew The Architect’s identity? And even worse, what do you think Bai would do if she heard that you…”

“That was a lie!” Charlotte said. “Do you seriously think me so low as to lie to a friend?”

“The question isn’t whether I believe you,” I said. “The question is whether they could make Bai believe it. Or anyone else believe it.” I paused, remembering how she hadn’t exactly convinced me when she had made the promise. “You have left it alone, right?”

“Well…” Charlotte said, “Mayu said it best. It would be irresponsible to just leave…” I tensed. If she said Mubashir’s name, there was a very good chance I’d kill her. “…our friend in the hands of people who had no idea what to do with him. I didn’t find him, I just laid a bit of groundwork.”

“Bloody ‘ell,” Eliza said. “You realize everybody’s going to be pissed with you now?”

“Only if they know the truth,” Charlotte said. “And even then, they would have to be rather unreasonable, wouldn’t they?”

“Ok,” John said, taking a deep breath, “what happens if Li finds out Bai told you who The Architect is? Do you think Li is reasonable?” He shook his head. “Not only that, but I don’t think Mayu’s even sane. There’s something seriously wrong with her.”

“Um.” We all turned to look at Charlotte. “The thing about Mayu… we think people in her own organization are planning on killing her. We… don’t want that.”

“Any particular reason?” I asked. Seeing that everyone looked at me with horror, I said, “Look, I know that all life is sacred and stuff. She’s also gotten a raw deal.”

“Fuckin’ A she ‘as,” Eliza murmured darkly.

I continued, “But to get her out, we’d need to kill a lot of people. Then what? What happens when she finds out we don’t want her anywhere near Mubashir?”

Charlotte cleared her throat, then said, “Actually, we may need her.” I raised an eyebrow. “You see, while we don’t need The Architect yet, we need someone who can put a stop to the Dragon’s Teeth and their Goddess… whether or not it they are related to prophecies, final or otherwise.”

“Ok,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean we need her. The Architect is in very good hands.”

“As far as we know,” Charlotte said. “That being said, any number of things could have gone wrong. His former caretakers may want him back, his new caretakers may find him unsatisfactory, he may leave in a fit of pique…”

“This is assuming that you have no resources,” I said. “But you do. You don’t need to take in Mayu.”

“What about control?” Charlotte asked. “If we need Mubashir, how do we control him?” I was about to say something, but Charlotte cut me off. “Oh, don’t tell me how we don’t need to control him. He bloody well admitted to not being able to control himself when his powers were activated. You even saw what happened when his powers manifest on two separate occasions.” It was more like three, but I didn’t feel that was important. Plus, I had only seen the aftereffects of the second time. “If he is provoked again… Well, from your own admission, his episodes seem to be getting bigger.”

I considered this. The first time I had experienced his powers, nothing dramatic had really changed. Yes, I had been felt up by millions of hands in a way that had traumatized me for life, and yes, a brick wall had been subtly altered, and yes, time and space had been bent to hell, but nothing really bad had happened. The next time I had actually witnessed his power in action, I had watched as three people had been turned into gym equipment. Also, thinking about it, I was now unsure if the bunker Mubashir had found had been there before. If it had been there before, I seriously wish Eric and his team had found it during the Hell Semester final.

I also considered something else. “If I’m going to help you,” I finally said to Charlotte, “I need to know, when Mayu told you that The Architect was a chance to make the world perfect…” I paused, because what I was saying sounded insane to me. “…how much did you believe that?”

“I think she’s exaggerating a bit, honestly,” Charlotte said.

“A bit?” John asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, a little more than a bit,” Charlotte admitted, “but I think she sincerely believes that The Architect could be a greater force for good than anything else. Between cultural differences and desperation to be part of something bigger than herself, one could be forgiven for thinking she lied.” The problem with that statement was that I didn’t believe Mayu thought she was lying or exaggerating.

“That isn’t what I was asking,” I said. “What I’m asking is how far are you planning on going with that line of thought.”

“Only as far as our friend wants to go,” Charlotte said. “I promise.”

“I will hold you to that promise,” I said. I wasn’t sure how, Mayu was right about how Charlotte was so powerful. After all, she had brought with her a significant chunk of the UK’s special forces. But this… I’d need to take a stand on this.

“Oi!” Eliza said. “You don’t get to threaten my sister!”

I took a deep breath, but John said, “Yeah, well, she doesn’t get to lie to people and then ask them to trust her. Oh wait! She’s been doing that for almost a year!” He stared directly at Charlotte. “If Bai asks if we kept our promise, I’m either going to have to lie to her or betray you, you understand that, right?”

“I do hope you’ll do the right thing,” Charlotte said.

“You don’t get it,” John said. “There is no right thing! I’m probably going to just flip a coin.” Even for me, someone who was extremely annoyed at Charlotte, this wasn’t good news. I wanted to know exactly what he’d do.

“Konbanwa!!” a bubbly voice behind us said. Charlotte, John and I turned around.

Eliza, who had been facing from the direction the voice was coming from, said, “Bloody fuckin’ ‘ell.” I also heard her flick off the safety of her CZ.

I didn’t have to turn around to know who it was. “Mayu,” I said, “we were just talking about you.”

“Oh good!” She said, her smile growing to the eye-closing one I had seen before. “I hope you have found my proposal acceptable.” As we talked, I heard Charlotte call some of her bodyguards, giving them directions to bring a car. I also noticed that Mayu was bleeding from the eyes and nose.

“I’m actually a bit curious about how you managed to get out, actually,” I said.

“Yeah,” John said. “You were in the basement, and I’m pretty sure the entire building is jump-shielded.”

“I read about that while I was away…” Mayu said, putting a finger to her lip and staring off speculatively. “They work by flooding the area with particles to stop us from jumping… I wonder, did their machine create a less dense concentration? Maybe that’s why it felt like I was slipping through a crack? And why this jump was so costly…” Again, I noticed the blood running down her face like wet makeup. She smiled again, one of her big ones, and held up a small scrap of paper. “Or maybe I was just lucky! Just like how Charlotte warned me that the Defenders wanted to kill me!”

“I didn’t think she’d come now!” Charlotte said frantically. “I thought that the note would tell her I was working on convincing them not to, and I’d tell her if…”

“If you’d waited,” Mayu said in her innocent, girlish voice, “the faction that wanted to kill me would have done so, and no one would have been able to prove anything.” She gave one of her big smiles. “I could go back if that’s more convenient for you.”

“No…” Charlotte said. “It would be impossible to get you out then.” She turned to John and me. “You two… get her to Jen. She’ll know where to hide her.”

“And then?” I asked.

“We’ll contact you,” Charlotte said.

“And if you can’t?” I asked. “What do we do then?”

“Please…” Eliza said, looking uncomfortable, “can we just go with the plan? This is… we’re wastin’ time. I’m surprised that the alarm ‘asn’t sounded yet.”

Mayu nodded eagerly. “Yes. They should have sounded it by now.” She then looked at John and me. “Even if I wanted nothing to do with the plan, I would want to be far away from what is about to happen here.”

Check and mate, Nate, I thought to myself. Mayu had finally found my button, at least in this instance. I didn’t like her. She was too manipulative for my liking, and Charlotte seemed to have a profound weakness for her. I also didn’t like the fact that she could get to me.

“Fine,” I said. “You win.” For now. “I’ll take the car, and then John and I can stash her with Jen… If that’s ok with you, John?”

I was inherently when John glared suspiciously at Mayu and said, “Sure. I’ll come.” I nodded gratefully at him. I really didn’t want to be alone with a manipulative assassin who wasn’t quite stable. Especially seeing as how our interests didn’t align even in the slightest.

We were interrupted by Charlotte’s Maybach pulling up on the road nearby. One of her bodyguards got out. “Well,” Charlotte said, “as Miss Nakashima suggested, you three should probably get a move on. Again, we will contact you.”

We got into the car. Mayu, I noticed, got in the back. That defeated my half-fantasized, half-realized plan of wrapping my arm around from behind her and squeezing. You could be wrong, I reminded myself. She might not be evil. Still, I decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check the rearview mirror every few seconds to see if she was trying something and lock the doors and windows just to be safe.

“Hey Jen…” I said as we started the car, “if you can hear us, please help. We’re kind of in deep shit.” We waited. “I got my cPhone, John has his, you gotta have one of our numbers…” Nothing happened.

“Who is Jen?” Mayu asked. I looked in the rearview mirror, partly to see her reaction, partly because I was due. John, to my satisfaction, was checking Mayu as well. Mayu, for her part, still had her typical smile.

“A person,” I said noncommittally.

“Are you seriously going to be that kind of asshole?” John asked.

I sighed. “Jen is… basically the only other person in this country we know. I’ve avoided her because even knowing her makes things… complicated.” Well, hopefully that wouldn’t be the case now. I mean, if she hadn’t ever gone to Japan before, the local law enforcement wouldn’t be watching her… right?

Then my phone beeped. Not wanting to crash, I pulled the Maybach over to the side of the road and pulled my phone out. It was a text from an unfamiliar number. I sighed. It could be Jen, so I took a look. After I stared at it for a moment, John said, “Judging by the look on your face, I’m guessing it isn’t good news.” I nodded. John sighed. “Fuck me, right?”

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Track of the Day

Track 8: A Modest Proposal

We got back to the castle very late at night. The day had been very interesting, as well as somewhat nerve-wracking.  After all, not only had we been sharing a car with a Jumper, but a Fire Elemental (Jen told us when we asked) and whatever Lydia was (Jen said she was an inventor, but didn’t mention her specialty,) plus Jen’s other two minions following us in the Escalade. Of Jennifer’s two minions in the car with us, I had no idea which was scarier. I guessed the one papers back home called Hoka (which meant arson in Japanese,) so I had a pretty good idea of how to deal her if she turned on us, but Lydia changed the dynamic. At least we were sitting in their blind spot while they were in our car.

When Jennifer had finally let us go, she and her two female bodyguards got back in her Escalade and drove off. We didn’t mention her in anything except mildly approving terms until we had arrived back at Kage keep and were several hundred meters away from the car.

“Well, that was… nerve-wracking,” I said.

“Bloody ‘ell, that’s an understatement,” Eliza growled darkly. “I definitely don’t like that Elemental. Smells too much like petrol for my taste.”

“Well,” I said, “she’s a Fire Elemental, so…”

“I’ve been around those kinda Elementals before,” Eliza said. “the only other one ‘oo ‘ad that smell was a fuckin’ firebug. Fucker liked to burn people a little too much for the coppers’ tastes.”

“Well… that’s bad, but expected,” I said. “But what the hell are we going to do about the car?”

“We’re gonna ‘ave to rip it to shreds, aren’t we?” Eliza said grimly.

“What car is this?” We looked up to see Charlotte and a couple of Royal Marine officers.

“You know that party we went to in Boston?” Eliza said. “It got infested when we parked it there.”

“Oh, bloody hell,” Charlotte said. She then turned to the officers. “Excuse us, gentlemen. My sister, Mr. Jacobs and I need to talk.” They nodded and walked off. Charlotte turned back towards us. “Now, if you two would come with me…”

She led us to a conference room. To my surprise, John was also in there. Charlotte motioned us to sit down. When we were all seated and the door was closed, Charlotte asked, “So, before we get into the real business, why do you think my car is bugged, and why do we need to take it apart?”

As Eliza and I recounted our encounter with Jen, I noticed Charlotte was a lot more thoughtful than I would be if someone had told me my $200,000+ car needed to be ripped down to its bolts. Finally, she said, “You know, there may be ways to make this useful.”

“Uh, how?” John asked.

“Never mind that for now,” Charlotte said. “In the meantime, I’d like to have a nice talk with Miss Nakashima.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Oh, no reason,” Charlotte said. “I just think she’s quite fascinating. And I do feel quite bad for her, what with her being trapped in some horrid alternate reality.” She checked her watch, then stood up. “I do believe our appointment is soon. If you would please follow me…”

We followed her out the door and down into the bowels of the castle. Eventually, we came to what obviously used to have been dungeons. Now, they seemed to have been refurbished into rooms for guests. Groups of three cells seemed to have been consolidated into one room. Judging by the heavy iron doors and the fact that two guards with pistols had been stationed by Mayu’s door, the guests may not have been as willing as someone staying in an equivalent room at a hotel.

The guards let us in, revealing that two of the three cells used to make the room had been turned into a good imitation of a hotel room with a desk, tatami mat, dresser and TV. The door to what had been the third cell was open and I could see it was a bathroom. The tasteful wood paneling was so soothing that at first I truly believed that this was a room designed with comfort first in mind. They had even put in a fake window opposite the door that mimicked sun rising and setting.

Then I saw the door close behind me. It didn’t look even half as intimidating as it had from the front. Hell, until you noticed that there wasn’t a door handle, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a normal door when it was closed and you were standing in the room. But that one missing feature changed everything. This room was definitely still a prison.

Mayu, though, seemed not to notice that. She was kneeling down at the low desk, a calligraphy brush in her hand, completely focused on what she was doing. I noticed that she was dressed in a much more Western style, with two tank tops (a white cotton one on top of a pink one) and a pleated blue skirt. “Please excuse me,” she said distractedly. “I’m just putting the finishing touches on this…”

“Certainly,” Charlotte said. “Please tell us when you’re done.”

We waited for a minute, watching Mayu work. Her long white hair made it hard to read her expression, but her body language was so focused that it looked like obsession. Finally, she put the brush on a tray beside the paper. Then, she stood up and bowed, smiling so wide her eyes closed. “Hello,” she said. “I apologize for my rudeness, but I was busy working on something and had almost finished.” She straightened up and her smile returned to its usual position, revealing her so-blue-they-were-almost-white eyes. “I hope you may forgive me and that the rest of your visit may be more pleasant.”

“As I said before, quite alright, dear,” Charlotte said.

“Hey,” John said, “do you mind showing us what you were working on?”

“Sure!” Mayu said. She carefully (in retrospect, reverently,) picked up the paper, removing the weights. She held it out in front of her with pride. “Do you like it?”

My breath almost caught in my throat. On the paper was a perfect drawing of Mubashir Mubarak, the man we now knew to be The Architect. His blocky head was not the most distinctive or handsome thing in the world, and the black ink couldn’t capture his brown skin, but it was definitely a three-quarters headshot of him. As casually as I could, I said, “That’s very good, Mayu. Where did you get the inspiration for him?”

Mayu stood there for a moment, her usual smile fixed on her face. Now, however, it seemed like it was masking a loading screen. Finally she said, “…I must have seen a similar face in a history book. Maybe American?” She then pointedly asked, “Why? Does he look familiar to you?” In that moment, I knew that she had seen each and every one of us recognize Moob. I also knew, short of getting her to confirm it, I could never prove it.

I’m not sure if John had come to the same conclusion as I had (namely to not mention Mubashir to Mayu) but he asked, “So, I see you decided to change clothes.”

Mayu smiled. “Oh, of course! I’m not sure if Nathan noticed the smell last night, but I hadn’t changed out of that kimono in hundreds of years.” Now that she mentioned it, I did recall a rather foul smell last night. “Besides, I want to get comfortable in these kinds of clothes.” She giggled. “After all, I’d look pretty silly going out in public in a kimono!”

“Of course!” Charlotte said. “But I am sure you could pull it off.”

Mayu smiled and bowed. “Very kind of you, Blackmoor-Ward-ojou, but I don’t want to pull it off. It… it would feel like stasis.” She pulled out of the bow, and I could briefly see a haunted look in her eyes. It was instantly gone and replaced with her usual grin. “Anyway, is there something your Ladyship would ask of me?”

“As a matter of fact,” Charlotte said, “I was wondering if you knew anything about The Architect.” John, Eliza, and I looked at Charlotte. This wasn’t the deal we had made with Bai. “The Defenders of Fuji have lost much information over the years. At one point, they knew more about The Architect than any other group in the world. They knew how to find…” there was a barely perceptible pause, “…it, how to control it, how to destroy it, things of that nature.”

Mayu giggled. “Well…” she said, “they last one is easiest to answer. You can’t.”

“But you can?” Eliza said suspiciously.

Mayu giggled again. “Don’t be silly! Your organization has the ear of a Queen of a great military power and an organization that can access the nuclear armaments of multiple nations. And if you are an example of your sister’s servants, I can tell just by looking at you there are only two situations in which I would be superior.”

I shot a look at Charlotte. I hoped it said, “She’s useless and we shouldn’t be talking to her.” I could see Eliza and John giving her similar looks.

Charlotte ignored these looks. Mayu, I’m pretty sure, saw them. “First of all,” Charlotte said, “Eliza is not a servant. She is my sister, if not in blood, then in spirit.”

“Oh!” Mayu said, bowing. “Please forgive me! I did not mean offense!”

“Sure…” Eliza said. With anyone else, she would have either made a joke or remarked how she was pretty much Charlotte’s de facto bodyguard to put them at ease. With Mayu, she just regarded her with suspicion.

“Second,” Charlotte said, “what are these two things you can do better than Eliza?”

“Well,” Mayu said, focusing solely on Charlotte, “the first thing I can do better than her, than anyone, is to find The Architect. I’m the only one on the entire planet who can find him because I’m the only one who knows what to look for.”

John chimed in. “How do you know it’s a him? Couldn’t The Architect be an it or a her?”

Mayu just smiled at him. “Didn’t I tell you I’m the only one who can find him?”

“We don’t need to find him just at the moment,” Charlotte said. “But…”

Mayu cut in. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Could you take out your phone or send an email and instantly know for certain where The Architect is?” Charlotte froze. I’m sure the rest of us did as well, and I’m convinced Mayu noticed it as well. Mayu giggled, covering her hand with her mouth. “Silly me! Of course you can. No responsible person would let someone that powerful fall into the wrong hands. Don’t worry, you don’t need to prove that to me.”

“Yes, quite,” Charlotte lied. “Of course.”

“The next question,” Mayu said, cocking her head, “is what are you planning on doing with him?”

“What we’re going to do,” I said, cutting in before Charlotte could say anything else, “is not any of your business. I’m sorry, but if we’re going to keep The Architect safe, we need as few people as possible to know about the situation as possible.”

“So you’re going to keep him locked away?” she asked. She sounded innocent as usual, but I could hear something else underneath. Something desperate. “You realize this is a god we are talking about. This is not some lost child or broken man. This is a chance to make the world perfect.” She paused, seeing that John and Eliza were looking at her with suspicion. As if she had planned it, she added, “He’s also the only one who can stop the Lady of Death and the Angels. You need him.” Not included in that speech, but heavily implied was, You need me, too.

I had gone very quiet and bland. That was because I had remembered what Mubashir had said to me the night his powers had been revealed: “At first, I thought Allah was just punishing me for my suicide. Now, I’m starting to wonder if he’s punishing me for telling Him I could do a better job.” He didn’t want to play God, and after Al-Qaeda, he probably had had enough of being someone’s weapon. Whatever Mayu had planned for him definitely involved both.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said, “you have an interesting proposal, but it’s the kind of thing we need to discuss in private.” I walked over and knocked on the door.

“Nathan,” Charlotte said reprovingly, “Don’t be rude. Surely she has more to say to us.”

“I’m sorry, Charlotte,” I said, “But she’s said enough.” I stared at her pointedly. “We’ve all said enough.”

 

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Track of the Day

Track 5: Shadows

Cautiously, I aimed my Berretta at the point where I had seen movement, my finger resting on the trigger guard instead of the trigger. “Who’s there?” I asked.

Slowly, obviously so as not to startle me, a pale woman in a red kimono emerged from behind the tree. I quickly realized that she must have some form of albinism, because her facial structure was Asian and she seemed to only be sixteen, but her hair was pure white, and her irises were so blue as to nearly be white. The expression on her face seemed oddly cheerful and she carried herself with the hard-won grace of a dancer or martial artist. The cumulative effect was to render her completely otherworldly.

“Hello,” she said, “I am Nakashima Mayu… sorry, Mayu Nakashima. I believe you are looking for me.” Her voice was both very high-pitched and bubbly, yet oddly formal. Her English was extremely good, but I noticed that she said her “L”s very carefully.

Letting out my breath, I lowered my gun. The light pooled at Mayu’s feet. I didn’t want to holster the gun completely as I didn’t want to be left in darkness. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Nathan Jacobs. I’m here to get you home.” Her breath caught audibly. Ignoring it, I added, “do you have any idea what happened to your fellow heralds?”

Mayu broke down. She went from graceful to collapsed on the ground, sobbing uncontrollably. She was repeating something over and over again, but she was sobbing so hard I couldn’t be sure of the language.

Instinctively, I moved to comfort her. However, I had forgotten two things. The first was that I was standing in a briar patch. The second was that my leg was busted up. My first step caused me to collapse, body-slamming the thicket of thorns.

“Oh no!” Mayu said. “You’re hurt!” I noticed that she sort of tripped over the contraction. She then began to help me out of the thicket.

“Boy, I’m glad you’re here,” I said as she got me supported on her shoulder. “It is a little embarrassing, though. I mean, I’m supposed to be rescuing you, right?” I felt Mayu stiffen right next to me. Crap, I forgot about the whole Japanese and honor thing. “Don’t worry about it,” I said, “It’s a good reminder that I’m not as useful as I think I am.”

“But if your companions find out you were rescued by a girl…” Mayu said.

“Eliza’ll get a kick out of it,” I said, “but if anyone really has a problem with it, they either don’t matter or I haven’t been as effective as I think. Besides, it could be worse. I could have landed in some poison ivy.”

In fact, I could almost hear Eliza cackle, “Oi, Nate! You’re supposed to save the damsel, not the other bloody way around!”

“Poison… ivy…?” Mayu asked, seemingly tasting the words.

“Nasty weed I have back home,” I said. “Instead of getting all these interesting cuts from the brambles, I could’ve ended up with a mildly contagious rash.”

“I see,” Mayu said.

In that instant, I realized how much I missed Eliza’s teasing. She usually knew just how far to go to make me laugh. She also would have laughed at my jokes. Nothing was more gratifying than a pretty woman who laughed at your jokes.

I then remembered about how Eliza had run off and began to worry again. “Hey, Mayu,” I said, “You’re a Jumper, right?”

“Yes…” she said cautiously, obviously not knowing where I was going with that question.

“One of my friends is in trouble,” I said. “She… saw something…” I felt Mayu tense up next to me. “I was wondering if you could go find her.”

“I am sorry, Mr. Jacobs,” Mayu said. Her voice was still cheerful, but there was an edge to it. “I think that jumping, as you call it, would be a very bad idea tonight.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

Mayu completely ignored the question. “You know,” she said, “all the information I have been given has made me quite curious about what’s happened while I was gone. I know I will be busy, but I would like to sample some of the changes.”

“Mm,” I said noncommittally. I would have to tell the Defenders of Fuji about this conversation and how she avoided that particular topic. I also was a little concerned about the constantly cheery attitude. I had noticed the cheer in a lot of Japanese people I had met, but in Mayu it felt a lot more forced. Of course, as she talked about restarting her life, she slowly began to seem more genuine.

“Of course,” Mayu said, “a lot of things will be inevitable. I’ll have to drive, I’ll have to use computers and…” She paused.

“What is it?” I asked. As I turned around to face her, I swear her expression changed from a frown to her permanent smile. It was dark, but I couldn’t really tell.

“I’m sorry,” she said cheerfully. “I’m not sure how much I should tell you. After all, you aren’t part of the Defenders.”

I doubted I’d be able to get any more out of her, so I asked, “So, do you know how to get back to Kage keep?”

In response, Mayu took out a hand-held GPS unit that she had tucked in her belt. “Yes,” she said. “We should be coming up on a road soon that will lead to the castle.” She tucked the GPS back in her belt. “It is very useful, this device, but I do not think I should rely on it.” She sighed. “I did not know how badly I’d need it. This mountain has changed much in five hundred years. I expected the trees to be different, but I think the land itself has changed. I believe the process is called erosion.”

We pushed through a branch and the light from my pistol illuminated a road sign. “Hey,” I said, “I think I remember this stretch of road.”

“That make sense,” Mayu said. “If you have come in from the western side of the country, you would have come through here.”

Suddenly, I heard a rustling sound. I scanned around, using my pistol’s light to illuminate the underbrush. At first, I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Then I realized one of the trees had something oddly colored behind it. It looked like an arm covered in high-tech armor. The arm belonged to someone huge. The last time I had seen armor like that, I had been in North Korea. The person who had been wearing it had been able to survive the entire street above him crushing him, the explosion that caused it, and at least one magazine from a G-3 at near-contact range before finally dying.

“Nathan…” Mayu asked, “what is it?”

“Mayu,” I said, “on my left hip is a SIG-Sauer P-229. Do you know how to work it?” As I said this, we continued to walk down the path. I avoided looking at where the arm was.

“I think so,” she said. “Is it like a Minebea P9?”

“Yeah,” I said, recognizing that the P9 was basically a SIG clone, “but it’s got more of a kick and three more shots. Anyway, I want you to take it and run.”

“Eh? You think something’s out there?” Mayu asked.

Before I could answer, a familiar voice muffled by a helmet said, “Nathan, you’ll have to do better than that.”

My breath caught. Right after I had emptied my first mag into his face, that is exactly what the heavily armored Dragon’s Teeth soldier had told me. Except that then he hadn’t known my name.

“RUN!” I yelled at Mayu. “FUCKING RUN!” With that, I turned around and began shooting at the tree where the soldier, I think that kind was called a Berserker, was hiding.

I turned around to see Mayu looking at me strangely. “Nathan,” she asked, staring at me like I was crazy, “there’s nothing there.”

I was about to argue, then I looked at the tree I thought the Berserker had been hiding behind. Not only was the arm gone, but I now realized how small the tree was. Nari couldn’t have hidden behind it, let alone someone as freakishly huge as a Berserker. I lowered my Berretta, my hands shaking and the barrel smoking.

“Nathan?” Mayu asked. “Are you alright?”

I took a deep breath. Before I could answer, the Berserker asked, “Well, Nathan, what are you going to do?” That was what the Berserker had asked after my first burst, the only difference was that now he knew my name. I turned around to where his voice was now coming from. Nothing but trees.

I took a deep breath. It wasn’t the same Berserker. It couldn’t be. I had seen his helmet shattered by my bullets, and the head and brain inside reduced to bloody hamburger. He couldn’t have survived. He couldn’t. Right?

“Nathan?” Mayu asked.

I took a deep breath. All of a sudden, I realized that Mayu hadn’t heard or seen any of the things I had. “There’s something going on here,” I said. “The most likely explanation is that I’m going insane, but other people seem to be going insane in the exact same way.”

Mayu, who had been edging away from me, asked, “How are you going insane?”

“I’m…” I said, “I’m seeing people who should be dead.”

“Who did you see?” Mayu asked.

“Someone I killed,” I said. “But it could be… it could be one of his brothers. Let’s just say he’s got a big family.” I paused. “If his family’s here… well, it isn’t just me who’s going to be in trouble.”

“I see!” Mayu said, brightening at the possibility of an invasion. She then walked back to support me again. “If that is true, then we need to get back to the castle. Let’s do our best, Mr. Jacobs!”

We then began to walk forwards. After a while, I said, “Before I was cut off from my group, we heard that some search parties found some of the people you went in with.” Part of the reason I said was to strike up some conversation, part of it was to gauge her reaction. Mostly, though, I was curious. Of the sixteen people who had gone into that weird pocket dimension, the only survivor I knew of was Mayu. Of the six others to have been found, two had definitely been murdered, three could be either murder or suicide, and one apparently was “just weird.”

“Who did you find?” Mayu asked. Her cheer was much more… dissonant somehow.

“Well,” I said, “I only found you. And the people on the radio didn’t say any names.” I paused, debating how much to say. “We did find your Sensei and someone whose death… raised a lot of questions apparently. There were a few others, all dead.”

“I see,” Mayu said, as if she was just discussing the weather instead of the violent deaths of the people she had known for five hundred years.

“Do… do you know if there’s anyone else alive?” I asked. “I mean, if they’re still alive…”

“They aren’t.” I shuddered. The way Mayu had said that was too casual for my liking.

“When…” I asked, “when did the last one die?”

“When is a very relative term,” Mayu said, putting her finger to her chin and staring off into space to contemplate. “Time there went… differently. It was slower. At first we thought that it went at half-speed as compared to the real world. I think the second accident happened when we realized that we were falling farther behind.”

“Uhh…” I said, trying to process this. I somehow doubted that any death that happened there was an accident. My guess was that that death would’ve been a suicide. Finally, I asked, “What happened to your sensei? From what I heard, it seemed that he was murdered.”

“We feel that murder is the wrong term,” Mayu said. It took me a bit to realize that we meant everyone in the pocket dimension. “We were selected to be in there for five hundred years by others. They should have considered we might be in there longer. They should have considered our personalities as well as our skills. They should have considered the safety of the place. Therefore, we prefer words like ‘accident’ or ‘mistake.’”

“Well,” I said, “more power to you, but I think that your bosses might…”

“What is it, Mr. Jacobs?” Mayu asked. I could understand why she was concerned. I had suddenly stopped and had begun to stare at what probably appeared to her to be nothing. Even more alarming, I was aiming my gun at the spot and my breathing was becoming rapid and shallow.

“He’s back,” I said through my gasps for breath. There, standing between two trees was a large dark shape. It was humanoid, but too big to be fully human, even if you accounted for its armor. The huge shape stood just out of range of my pistol light’s range, but I could see it had one glowing red eye.

“Mr. Jacobs…” Mayu said, obviously concerned as I shrugged off her arm and began to walk towards the giant.

“COME ON, YOU FUCKER!” I yelled, my vision blackening. “COME ON! YOU WANNA END THIS? LET”S END THIS!” As I roared, I began to fire.

The dark shape didn’t even register my shots. In my state, it was perfectly possible that they were all missing. Of course, knowing Deet armor, it was also possible that they were all hitting and just not doing anything.

“Finish it?” the shape asked when my gun clicked. He then stepped out into the light. I could finally see his helmet. It had been smashed open by rifle fire. My rifle. I could see bits of brain. I fell to my knees, my vision darkening. “I just wanted you to know what you’re up against… Killer.” He said my nickname in a way that was both accusation and threat.

In that instant, I knew. Richard, Charlotte’s mother, and this Berserker… they were all the same. They were dead and buried, but not gone. With that, I passed out, Mayu’s panicked voice slowly fading out.

 

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