Track 5: Kidney Stones and Confessions

It was a testament to the deposed Anthony Carter Newton-Howell that he could still sound casual after having been strapped naked to a table for several days. I’m not going to lie, it was also intimidating as hell.

“You’re really not in a position to be making threats,” Krieger said coldly. Behind me, I could hear the rustling of paper.

“Did that sound like a threat?” the President asked innocently. “Nathan, if I’m threatening you I apologize.” Something about the tone of his voice made it clear that it was an insult, but a reasonable person would have some doubts.

We were then interrupted by Zemylachka loudly eating a breakfast sandwich. She had to be deliberately eating the thing as loudly as possible. I recognized the paper bag. It was from Galahad’s Café. They made good food, but even so, the happy noises Zemylachka was making was probably faked.

“Can you stop that?” the President asked.

“Shtop what?” Zemylachka asked, her mouth full of breakfast sandwich.

“Really?” the President asked. “I thought you were more sophisticated than this. You’re just being kind of a dick now.”

“Insults?” Zemylachka asked, after swallowing loudly. “And I was going to give you something to eat if you cooperated.”

“Really?” the President asked suspiciously. “I mean, the goal is to kill me, right? Oh, by the way, assuming you get creative, this’ll probably work in three to six months.”

“But we have so much to learn!” Zemylachka said. I shivered at how she said that. “You could help us a bit.”

“So that’s why this is taking so long,” the President said as Zemylachka moved to kneel beside him. “You know, a lot can change in six months. For instance, I could be a free man having lunch at five-star restaurants in Zurich.”

“Or,” Zemylachka said after loudly swallowing some of her breakfast sandwich, “you could seriously reevaluate your endurance. For instance, how often do you test your ability to go without food?”

“I’m a scientist,” the President said. Krieger and Zemylachka looked at each other and laughed out loud at this. “Ok, I know about science. I think I’m good. I’m not going to break easily.”

“You won’t last a day, you love luxury too much,” Zemylachka said. “Look at your house.”

“Which bloody one?” Krieger asked. “I’ve seen the one on the Volga, the apartment in London, the one in Shanghai…”

“How…?” the President asked. “You shouldn’t know about those.”

“You might want to talk,” Zemylachka said. “Life will get much more comfortable if you cooperate.”

“For instance,” I said, “did you create the Dragon’s Teeth?”

The President stared at me for a second in disbelief. “Are… are you sure you don’t know the answer? You know about the Interdimensional Research Facility, you’d have to be dumber than even I think you are to not know about my hoarding of technology, you just heard those two idiots talk about how rich I am, and you know how much talent I can access here. What do you think?”

I suddenly remembered Kyle Rockford. He was a transgendered man who had gone to NIU with me. His grandfather had taught at NIU and gotten some advanced gene therapy to help him transition. Then the person who had invented the treatment had gone missing. I also remembered Mubashir mentioning the reason Al Qaeda had been on-campus was that the President let them train for a reduced price or free in exchange for favors. Other groups had the same deal, and, according to Moob, the favors usually involved delaying scientific progress made by NIU graduates. “Speaking of the tech hoarding,” I said, suddenly angry, “how many could have been saved, how many lives could have been improved, if you hadn’t gone around ruining your graduates so they couldn’t work?”

The President shrugged. “Millions. Billions. Who cares? It’s a rounding error compared to what the Dragon’s Teeth can save.”

“The Dragon’s Teeth,” I said, “are out of control.”

“You sure?” the President asked. “I mean, I may have lost control of the people I delegated them to, but-“

Krieger and I spoke at the same time. “Sounds like you’ve lost control,” he said.

I, meanwhile, said, “They’re plotting an uprising!”

The President turned to me. “What makes you say that?” he asked, mildly interested.

“I’ve heard them in Korea, remember?” I said. “Their Death Goddess.” The President opened his mouth and I said, “Yes, I know you think that the Final Prophecy is bullshit, I don’t blame you.” Zemylachka and Krieger looked confused, so I added, “Basically, a God or Goddess of Death, a reality-warping entity, some supernatural beings ‘from the sky,’ and their minions are going to duke it out according to a prophecy from the 1500’s. And the thing about the Death Goddess…” I took a deep breath. This was going to sound crazy. “I saw her. Or at least how she or it’s connected to the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“How…?” the President asked, looking at me like I was crazy.

“Dead people took me to see…” I struggled, looking for the words, “the psionic representation of their bond, I guess? It was beautiful, but I had no idea what I was looking at.”

“Do… do you want to see someone?” Zemylachka asked. “Someone who specializes in…” From her tone of voice, it sounded like she was looking for

“Mental wellbeing?” Kreiger supplied helpfully. He then turned back to the President. “Anyway, before we get too distracted, what are you saving everyone from? And how are you planning on getting things under control?”

“The immediate threat?” the President asked. “You’ll meet them in about, oh, a few months. Personally, I’d let the Dragon’s Teeth take over, then let them do their job. Unless they’ve gone truly psychotic, they’re going to fight the bigger fish.”

“And then what?” Kreiger asked.

“You know,” the President said, “I think I’ll save some of that for another time.”

“You aren’t exactly in a position-” Krieger began.

“No, no, no,” Zemylachka said. “Is fine, is fine, I think. Interrogation, even torture, is like therapy.” She reached into the bag and brought out a breakfast sandwich and placed in on the President’s chest. She then reached in and brought out an IV bag. “After I ensure more productive sessions, I will feed you your treat.”

As she stuck the bag into him, I asked, “So, what is that?”

“Yeah,” the President said. “I’m a little interested as well.”

“Some calcium, some oxalate, bit of uric acid,” Zemylachka said. “Harmless, really.”

“Oh my God,” I said, suddenly realizing what she was doing. “You… you’re giving him artificial kidney stones.” In case you’ve never had one, if they get big enough, they’re painful. I’d never experienced one, but I had heard a medically-minded friend talk about them once. “You’re a monster.”

Zemylachka rolled her eyes. “Of course I am. Have you not been paying attention?”


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Track 3: The Coup

The President was true to his word. We really were holding some kind of trial. It was large auditorium, with chairs removed around the front-center. The remaining chairs were arranged in a C-shape, most facing towards the stage, a few near the front were facing the gap. In that gap were two lecterns facing the stage, upon which the President sat on a fancy leather swivel chair behind a heavy wooden desk, smiling down at me with a quiet satisfaction. Behind him stood Gupta and Mendez One lectern was unoccupied. The other one had Professor Karl Krieger at it. He turned around and smiled at me.

As he did, I noticed he wore handcuffs that forced his wrists to touch. They were painted a dull black, but as usual, his light brown eyes and bushy mane of hair and wild beard made him look like a demented lion. He was smiling like he was genuinely happy to see me. “Boyke!” he said happily, his accent as South African as ever. “Been busy, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I said, slightly guilty. I hadn’t completely betrayed him, but what I did was still treachery. No matter how much I reminded myself how crazy Krieger was and how there was a chance he was even worse than the President. It felt hollow.

“I take it you talked?” Krieger asked. “I was… wondering.”

“Oh he sang,” the President said. “Like a canary.”

As I walked down the central path to the unoccupied lectern, I noticed that everyone was watching me like I was the key witness in a courtroom drama. In the parts of the circle facing the stage, there were a mix of professors, students, and off-duty Campus Security. In the seats left to of the lecterns, a group of older, more important faculty members sat just beyond Krieger. In the seats to the right, closest to the empty lectern I noticed what looked to be most of the AMS and Shadowhaven faculty handcuffed and held at gunpoint by Professor Johnathan Blunt, the leader of AMS, and six CampSec guards with patrol uniforms and either SPAS-12 shotguns or P90 submachineguns. I also noticed that there were two guards by the only doors. They were both armed with black SCAR-L assault rifles. Besides them was what appeared to be a weapons rack.

On my way down, I passed Eliza. She gave me a thumbs-up sign and smiled, but she seemed nervous. She wasn’t the only one. Everyone seemed on edge. Especially the small group of AMS/Shadowhaven students who had entered NIU the year after me who were sitting in the back.

“Naturally,” Krieger said, responding to the President. “You have quite the way of convincing people, at least initially, Mr. Howell. Quite something, really.”

As I got closer, I noticed something else. The Rogue faculty seemed somewhat split. Fifty percent seemed to be on the chairs facing the imprisoned AMS/Shadowhaven faculty, one percent was mixed in, along with some other faculty and staff who obviously weren’t from any of the three groups. Suddenly, it hit me. The President was initiating a purge of the AMS and Shadowhaven faculty. After all, they were the biggest physical threat apart from Campus Security. Despite their tiny size, the combined firepower of Shadowhaven and AMS could potentially topple Campus Security. The only other school that could even hope to match their combat experience were the Rogues. As for the other schools, well, I actually had a chance to fight some of the Business majors in Hell Semester. If I wanted someone to take out AMS/Shadowhaven, I would sooner give guns to the least physically active students from the Turing Computer Science School.

When I finally got to the lectern, I saw Professor Antionette and Professor Rosalia Zemylachka, the leader of Shadowhaven, kneeling on the ground. Behind each, a CampSec guard stood, aiming their service pistols at their heads. Professor Antionette was nervous. Professor Zemylachka looked impassive, despite having a cut lip, forehead, and multiple bruises on her face.

“So,” the President said as I got to the lectern, “shall we begin?”

“Certainly,” I said.

“First off,” the President said, “could you state your name for the record and how you know the defendant?”

“My name is Nathan Jacobs,” I said. “I’m a student at the Academy of Military Science and I met Professor Karl Krieger at Hell Semester as my section’s sergeant. After completing that, he became my advisor.”

The President nodded. “I notice,” he said, “that you haven’t visited him as often as required. Is there a reason for this?”

“May I answer this?” Krieger asked.

“No,” the President said. “For obvious reasons.”

“He hasn’t told you everything,” Krieger said. “In fact, our lad hasn’t told you the juiciest parts. For instance, what did he tell you about me infiltrating Campus Security?”

“He…” the President began, arrogant as usual. Then his face changed to one of utter horror. “Fuck m-”

Before he could finish, Gupta and Mendez fired in unison. Well, not exactly in unison. Gupta’s shot from her Five-seveN passed cleanly through the President’s skull, with only a small spray of blood, bone and gray matter. The velocity of the round was such that the President’s head didn’t even move. Barely a millisecond passed when the first of the .45 ACP slugs from Mendez’s FNX-45 Tactical slammed into the President’s head. It exited from between the President’s eyes, causing to his face to explode like a watermelon struck with a hammer.

I didn’t see the second round. I had ducked behind the podium as soon as I saw the President’s head burst open. I looked to where Krieger was. He was also hiding behind his podium and laughing. Behind him the supposedly “loyal” faculty was busy killing each other. Apparently, some of the Rogue professors had smuggled in garrotes and ceramic blades and seemed to be massacring the others in a methodical manner.

From the section the captive faculty members were being kept, I could hear gunfire. Turning around, I expected to see them being massacred by CampSec and Professor Blunt. Instead, it seemed most of the CampSec officers and Professor Blunt were turning traitor. What I assumed to be the loyal guards had been almost immediately gunned down and the ones who’d thrown in with Krieger were now split between freeing the captives and moving towards the audience. The guards for Professors Zemylachka and Antionette were on the ground. The ones guarding Zemylachka had bled out, one guarding of the ones guarding Professor Antionette was catatonic, and the final one was desperately trying to stop Zemylachka from stabbing him.

Behind me, most of the audience was either panicking or getting as low as possible. I did notice, however, that some of the AMS and Shadowhaven students I had seen earlier were heading towards the entrance. One of the guards had slung her SCAR-L over her shoulder and was opening a weapons case. Meanwhile, her partner had executed two CampSec officers in patrol uniforms coming to investigate the sounds with one shot each.

After the initial purge had died down, the members of the coup began to free the prisoners and control the audience. Calm shouts of “Stay in your seats and put your hands over your heads!” began to echo throughout the chamber. From outside the room, I could hear gunshots. Whatever the plan for the coup was, it was just getting started.

Professor Blunt walked over to Krieger, Gupta and Mendez jumping off the stage to join them. After Blunt unlocked Krieger’s cuffs, he handed Krieger a custom silver or chrome-plated 1911.  I recognized it from Hell Semester, specifically when Krieger had pointed it in my face when I was goofing off during practice for disarming people. “Here, you crazy bastard,” Blunt said. “Figured you’d want this.”

“Yeah,” Krieger said, “Might be bit helpful.” He grinned and turned to Mendez and Gupta. “Still, did you see the look on Anthony’s face? Been dying to wipe that smug grin off since the nineties?”

“Must have been something,” a voice from the stage said. We turned around to see the President shakily standing up. “Shame I didn’t have a mirror.”

In response, Professor Blunt, Mendez, and Gupta unloaded their weapons into him. After the President collapsed, I thought I heard him weakly gasp, “Not… gonna work, guys.”

Krieger, suddenly very calm, said, “Well, I guess we’ll have to go with plan B.”

Professor Zemylachka, who had finished butchering the remaining guard and stealthily approached us, said, “I think I have a few ideas.” I turned to look at her blood-spattered face. She seemed disturbingly eager.

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Track 2: That You Hold Over Me

“So,” Officer Mendez, a Campus Security officer from Mexico said, looking down at his notes he had taken while interviewing me, “You have no idea who that man was? Or how your two friends found you?” I had dealt with Officer Mendez and his partner, Officer Gupta before. Some of these encounters had been positive, some negative, some ambiguous. For instance, in one encounter, they had expressed doubts about the President and I had subtly pointed them in Krieger’s direction. Then I had let Krieger know about them.

Seeing how this room was most likely bugged (if not by Campus Security, then by the President himself) I knew I couldn’t directly ask them. But I couldn’t exactly trust them if I didn’t know where their loyalties lay.

“No,” I said, responding to Mendez’s question as calmly as possible. “Do you know what happened to the guards who were supposed to be near me?” And why they were there in the first place? “Because it seems to me that whoever that guy was, he had some help on the inside.”

Mendez and Gupta exchanged dark looks. “Dead or disappeared?” I asked.

“Disappeared,” Gupta said. “I’m curious as to how you guessed.”

I blinked. That was like being given a multiple choice question with only possible answers and saying, “I don’t know, either A or B.” There were only two possible outcomes for those guards. I mean, you could say that they could end up getting caught, but in this scenario I sort of lumped that outcome with dying. I stared at them for a moment, then asked, “Are you fucking serious? Was there a magic third option, or did you two seriously expect them to just happen to be getting coffee when my killer stopped by?”

Mendez nodded. “I see,” he said.

“And,” I said, “if you’re pissed off that I’m implying they’re extremely unprofessional, I’m not. I’m implying that anyone in your job wouldn’t have lasted if they thought they could get away with not guarding someone their boss told them to guard.”

“Do you know why you were being guarded?” Gupta asked.

“No,” I said. “I don’t have a reputation for making trouble at school,” at least I didn’t think I did, “and I think the Japanese law enforcement and the Defenders of Fuji have bigger problems than me at the moment.”

“Hi there,” a masculine voice said. We turned around to see a man who looked a lot like a taller version of Robert Downey Jr, flanked by two CampSec guards in full combat gear and a third man in a more ornate version of the Campus Security patrol uniform. It was President Anthony Carter Newton-Howell. He looked peeved. “Any… any particular reason you two” he said indicated Mendez and Gupta with an awkward wave of his hand, “are interviewing Mr. Jacobs, Officers…?”

Mendez and Gupta had stood up and saluted as soon as they had heard the President’s voice. “I’m Officer Mendez and this is my partner, Officer Gupta. We’re following standard protocol and-”

“Interviewing  the victim and the suspect,” the President said, rolling his eyes. “Very efficient, in a self-defense case. He’s both.” He paused, then said, “Thing is, I specifically asked Chief Gonzalez to interview the people involved in the incident myself before anyone else gets a chance to talk to them.” He turned to the man in the fancy version of the patrol uniform. I noticed that the gold badge he wore identified him as I. Gonzalez.

“Correct, sir,” Chief Gonzalez said.

“Sorry, sir,” Gupta said, “Our supervisor, Sergeant Berthier assigned us and-”

“Really?” Gonzalez said. “Berthier disappeared four hours ago.”

Gupta and Mendez exchanged nervous glances. Only Gupta and Mendez could tell if it was because they were caught in a lie or if their only hope of salvation had just disappeared. “We got the call from him fifteen minutes ago.” Mendez said. He held up his cPhone. “Well, it was a text, but…”

“I think,” Gonzalez said, “that you should go with Officers Landers and Sato.” The two CampSec officers in combat armor had been fidgeting nervously with their P90s. Despite the bulky uniforms and dark sunglasses, I could tell that they didn’t want to be arresting fellow officers.

“Things going wrong?” I asked innocently as the security officers left the room.

I instantly regretted my flippantry. The President’s eyes hardened even more. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?” he asked. He was still calm and casual, but his voice was dangerous.

“Um,” I said. Me and my big mouth.

“Don’t worry,” the President said. “You’re going to have a chance to make it all up to me.” He leaned in close so his face was almost touching mine. His face was blank and the most intimidating thing I’ve ever seen. “First, you’re going to tell me everything. Every question I ask, you will answer truthfully. Then, you’re going to repeat these answers again until I’m sure you’ll say the same exact thing tomorrow.”

“What happens tomorrow?” I asked.

The President smiled. It was genuinely happy, but only because I was in a tight spot. “I believe,” he said, “one of the things you said you liked to do as an extracurricular was to act. Well, tomorrow, you’re going to say all these things you say to me today in front of an audience. Think of it as a mock trial.”

A horrible, horrible image of me in a kangaroo court appeared, with everyone at NIU who hated me lining up to say bad things. “Do I get a lawyer?” I asked.

“Nathan, Nathan,” the President said, his smile getting bigger. “You don’t need a lawyer. You’re a witness.”

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Track 11: Curiouser and Curiouser

Before May took Nari to the campus’s hospital, May forced us to agree on several new rules for production. The first rule was that no human (especially Nari) would be the first to fire. Instead, we’d have to get some sort of set-up that would allow us to fire the weapon remotely. The second rule would be that I had to sleep. No spending a week without sleep to get the next version done.

I agreed. Nari was a little harder to convince. We finally got Nari to agree when I said I’d take a shot just to test it. After all, the one time she had actually shot a gun, it was a nine mil.

Making sure I was wearing ear protection (seriously, that thing was loud) and making sure I was in a stance that would let me deal with the recoil, I pulled the trigger. “Whoah,” I said, laughing in exhilarated nervousness, “this thing is fucking crazy.” I lowered the gun and looked at May and Nari. “If we want this to actually be a combat pistol, we’re going to have to reduce the recoil. Maybe the sound, too.”

“Ok,” May said, somewhat aggravated, “can I get you to the hospital now, Nari? I’d rather have Sunny kill me sooner rather than later.”

“Just a few more things,” Nari said. “Mr. Jacobs, I need you to stay here and shoot a few rounds from the Uilon Mangchi and a few other firearms. This will help me figure out how much I need to reduce the recoil by. Also, make sure to disconnect my hard drive and get that and the plans back to me, please!”

“Ok,” May said. “Is that all?” Nari nodded. May nodded. “Alright,” she said, frog-marching Nari out of the room, “out we go.”

Just as the door closed behind them, I could swear I heard Nari ask, “Sunny doesn’t have to know about this, does she?” I sighed as the door swished shut behind them. Nari was way too enthusiastic about this.

Still, I had a job to do, and that was test the gun I had 3D printed. It wasn’t really a good test (to do that, you’d need to fire a thousand rounds of ammo and there were only twenty rounds of ammo for it in the world,) but the test was revealing, nonetheless.

The bad news was I had seriously messed something up with the firing mechanism. In the twenty times the Uilon Mangchi had been fired, it managed to jam three times. Also, while the slide did go all the way back on the last shot, it failed to lock. Also, the recoil made it slow to fire and hard to hit anything with. Compared to the Berretta M92FS and the SIG-Sauer P229, it was an almost uncontrollable, poorly designed, barely functional mess.

That being said, the six-and-a-half-mil the Uilon Mangchi fired almost made it worth it. On the hard armors, the first few rounds (at least, the first round that hit) seemed to penetrate the front plate with very little trouble. Occasionally, the first round would seem to bounce around inside the armor for a bit. In fact, some of the soft armored and all of the unarmored targets got off easier, as they only had six-and-a-half-millimeter holes in them instead of small caverns excavated by bullets.

By comparison, 9x19mm Parabellum and .357 SIG weren’t anywhere near as good at penetrating hard armor, but they were very good at dealing with unarmored targets. The SIG rounds were also tied with the new ammo in terms of dealing with soft armor.

As I packed up the weapons and unplugged Nari’s external hard drive and deleted the data off the main one, I wondered about how I would sell this new pistol. Based on the power it had, I didn’t really want civilians to have it, and I wasn’t sure how often law enforcement had to deal with targets in hard body armor. Also, I wasn’t sure how concerned the various militaries around the world were about The Dragon’s Teeth. This was a pistol that had been designed from the ground up to kill Deet soldiers at a time when people believed there were much bigger problems.

I was considering this quandary when there was a knock on the door. Hurriedly stuffing the remaining odds and ends into my pack, I went to open the door. There, standing outside, were Officers Gupta and Mendez.

I had had dealings with the two of them before, some bad, some good. Mendez, a Hispanic guy, and Gupta, an Indian woman, were both in their thirties. Their dark blue patrol uniforms hid their physiques quite well, making me wonder if there was some kind of soft body armor under it.

“Hey, Nathan,” Mendez said. “Is Nari here?”

“No,” I said, “she and May left a while ago. Nari’s been branching out into gunmaking and decided to try a more exotic model out. May had to take her to the hospital to check for a concussion.” Mendez and Gupta flinched and exchanged pained looks. “Why? What’s up?”

“The President wants to speak to everyone who came back from North Korea,” Gupta said. “I don’t get the feeling that you’re in trouble, but…” It wasn’t optional. Good to know.

As we walked down, Officer Gupta suddenly asked, “Do you remember the Chamber of Horrors… and what you found?”

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget,” I said. The Chamber of Horrors was a Hell Semester test. You were locked in a large, brightly lit room full of full of meat and unidentifiable sludge. Then wolves got released. The group I was sent in with were the only ones to realize that people who died in there weren’t taken out. Gupta and Mendez were the ones who removed us… and made sure the corpses stayed in. For a while, Gupta had defended her actions, which had caused me to avoid them.

“What if we decided that what happened there was wrong?” Gupta asked.

“I wouldn’t know what to say about that,” I said, “but I wouldn’t tell anyone who took offense to that opinion.” I would, however, tell Krieger. He probably would want to recruit some campus security officials for his coup.

The rest of the trip to the President’s house was done in silence. Finally, we got to the massive building on the main rotary that the President called his “house.” It wasn’t as big as the Newton-Howell Student Center next door, but it was comparable.

On the outside, it was a Victorian-style mansion, an (apparently) wood building surrounded by brick and mortar. However, thanks to the recent Grenzefrontier invasion, several bullet holes revealed what appeared to be cinderblock and Kevlar plating underneath.

To get into it, we crossed the field in the center of the rotary. It was the same field where The President had made Campus Security pour gasoline on some Grenzefrontier sympathizers. After delivering a calm, reasoned, and seemingly forgiving speech to the captured students, he had tossed a match onto them. Months later, the grass still hadn’t entirely grown back. I knew because we walked over it like it was just ground.

Gupta and Mendez then handed me off to another pair of guards standing by the mansion’s main entrance. They marched me into the house, taking me up the grand central staircase and into the room that The President had used to convince me to go to North Korea. Along the way, I noticed how the repairs to the house were still ongoing. Sheets covered the walls, once-luxurious floors were ripped up, and a few bullet holes were still visible. From deeper inside, I could hear the sound of power tools and people working.

The security guards motioned me inside. I walked in to the large office, immediately noticing that the makeover, at least in this room, was complete. The desk, table, and chairs had all been replaced, as well as one of the gargoyle busts behind The President’s desk that had been completely destroyed. I also noticed that there were now several pieces of electronics equipment scattered across the room, most notably a large TV on the wall opposite The President’s desk. On it was a picture of the inside of a Dragon’s Teeth Charon.

The President himself was standing by the TV. As usual, he looked exactly like Robert Downey Jr. However, unlike normal, he was visibly tense. One had was gripping his chin like he expected it to unscrew off his body of its own accord, the other was on his hip. His foot, meanwhile, was tapping uncontrollably.

“Ah, Nate,” he said, finally noticing me. “Sit down. I need an eyewitness account.”

“Sure,” I said, sitting down in a chair that I felt was indicated. “But I thought that we were waiting for the rest of…”

“No, no, no,” The President said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “It’s not like this is important. We’re only talking about information THAT’S THE GODDAMN DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHINA WINNING AND LOSING AGAINST THE DRAGON’S TEETH!” To punctuate his sudden outburst, he slammed his fist into the table. He grunted in pain, then kicked the table. “Motherfucker.”

I watched in nervous fascination. I had never seen The President display emotion other than mild annoyance. I wondered how big a threat The Dragon’s Teeth were to him personally. He then began pacing.

Suddenly, the door opened. “WHAT?” The President yelled, turning around to focus his ire on the hapless Campus Security Officer.

“Sir, the other two are here, sir,” the officer said. He was a large, muscular man, dwarfing The President, but he was obviously terrified by what he was seeing.

“Sorry, Officer Sahleanu,” The President said, making an effort to bring them down. “Please, bring them in.” As Officer Sahleanu ushered Sunny and John in, The President said, as cordially as he possibly could, “Oh, and if it isn’t too much trouble, could you please lock the door and seal the soundproofing? Sensitive material is going to be discussed, and I don’t want anyone to listen in.”

The officer acknowledged and left as quickly as possible. When he was gone, The President turned to Sunny and John. “Some people,” he said, still trying to keep calm, “forgot to keep their phones charged and on their person.”

“Listen, sir,” Sunny said, “I was about to charge it when…”

“I understand,” The President lied, “but you need to understand that when the president of China’s security advisor calls me, in person, and asks me how to deal with The Dragon’s Teeth because he has meeting with his boss in…” he checked his watch, “…let’s see, two hours, I get a little agitated.”

“So why don’t we get started,” I suggested calmly. This was interesting. I always suspected that The Dragon’s Teeth had somehow originated in NIU. Also, despite his dismissal of the idea that The Dragon’s Teeth originated in his university, I had a strong suspicion that The President was personally involved somehow.

The President paused and stared at me for a moment. The pause was barely perceptible, but it was just enough to send a chill down my spine. After that brief, uncomfortable pause, he said, “Yes, you’re right.” The way he said it, however, sent shivers down my spine.

He then made an effort to revert back to his genial self. It didn’t work as well as he thought it did. “Anyway, before I start asking questions, I’d like you to take a listen to a particular video you recorded.”

He pressed play on the remote. Instantly, I realized the context. It was when the remains of the recon team was trying to start a Charon while a group of Dragon’s Teeth Legionaries executed some people and had what seemed to be a prayer session. I noticed, as I had at the time, that this prayer session made several references to a death goddess of some sort.

After the video finished with Nari getting the engine working and the Charon accelerating away, The President said, “So, anyone have any thoughts? Any at all?”

John spoke up instantly. “Yeah,” he said, with a mixture of realization and dread. “They sound exactly like spoilfags!” Noticing our looks, he quickly added, “Sorry, that’s the 4chan name for them. Reddit and Tumblr mostly call them rigbots or trollbots. You may have heard about them. They basically go around attacking various candidates in the US election and trying to reduce the overall tone.”

“I’m not sure they needed to,” The President remarked dryly. “But it is something I will look into. Anything else?”

John shrugged. “Not really, only that they refer to their deity as Thana. I think that’s a shortened version of Thanatos, the Greek or Roman god of death.”

“Miss Lee, what about you?” The President asked. “Anything you noticed?”

Sunny straightened up. “As a matter of fact, yes. I believe they specifically targeted the armor plates of the vehicle. I think the only reason they eventually destroyed it was to hide evidence of deliberate negligence from their creators. I would actually be interested in seeing if we could get their creators to see the evidence. Maybe we could start some sort of witch hunt or purge.”

“The creators most likely leave intelligence gathering to their creations,” The President said. “They have… well, Mr. Jacobs, what do you think? What is your take on this situation?”

The previous exchange had provided a wealth of information. First of all, I now knew Sunny’s family name was Lee (though she still was probably unrelated to Nari.) Another thing was that The President had reason to believe that the creators of The Dragon’s Teeth trusted their creations enough to let them be their eyes and ears. Finally, something about The Dragon’s Teeth upset him… maybe even scared him.

However, I did not let any of this show. Instead, I asked, “What part would you like me to focus on? A few of my friends…”

“If you mention a prophecy, final or otherwise,” The President said, massaging his nose as if a headache was coming on, “I will scream.”

I nodded. “Honestly, I feel the same way, sir. There’s also these creators and… how did the Deets refer to him as? Their former master, that’s it. I think it would be illuminating to make a list of…”

“I am pursuing it from that end,” The President said, “I’m just having more qualified people do it.” He sighed. “You are right about one thing. I should narrow it down. Does anyone have any idea who this Thana person is?”

In that instant, I knew The President had ideas, and he liked none of them. However, I could give him nothing. Neither could any of the other people there.

Eventually, John hesitantly supplied, “…Thana is a derivation of…”

“Thank you, Mr. Marshall,” The President said. “I think that will be it. You and Miss Lee can go. Be sure to ask the other Miss Lee about our friend Thana, ok?” Sunny got up immediately, but John hung back. “Don’t worry,” The President told him, “He’ll tell you what happened.”

John left, The President following him as he left. In turn, I watched The President. He was now visibly calmer than when he had begun. When John had finally closed the door, he turned back to me.

“Now, Nathan,” he said, sitting down across from me, “I like you. You’re a natural at your specific field, you’re highly focused, and you’re ambitious in that cute way that ‘superheroes’ are without anywhere near the arrogance those guys have.”

“Very high praise,” I said.

“The problem is,” The President said, “unless someone steps in, you’re going to die before you graduate. Oh, don’t give me that look, you’re not that stupid. You probably already knew on some level, didn’t you?”

“And what does stepping in entail?” I asked in a neutral voice.

“Just two pieces of advice,” The President said. “The first is friendly. Your friends Bai and Eliza? The ones pushing that final prophecy? When you’re as powerful as I am, they’re just annoyances. But on your level, if you get sucked too far in, it’ll end badly, whether they want to hurt you or not.”

“And the other piece of friendly advice?” I asked.

The President’s face darkened. He leaned in closely and almost snarled, “It isn’t friendly.” He then continued, his voice low and controlled. “Listen, Nate, I know it’s hard to get things through that oddly thick skull, but there are things I don’t want you to know. And while you’re a very good wet worker, you suck at spying. Don’t pry into things here that don’t concern you. If you do, I will find out, and I will be very upset.”

“I understand,” I said.

“No,” he said, leaning back, “You don’t.” He waved me away. “Now get out of here.”

I nodded, and got up. Looking back on it, he was right. Before he had even finished telling me not to poke around, I had already begun to think of ways to circumvent The President’s scrutiny.

Like he said, I’m an idiot.


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Track 23: Did it Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“John gets operated on first, right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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